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Franco & OK Jazz
'Originalité' (RETRO2XCD)

Franco

Of all the fabled dance bands in Africa, OK Jazz stand out for the quality of music, the quantity of output and their pan-African influence. The band was pre-eminent in African music for more than 30 years, linking the first generation of Congo rumba with the later exuberance of Zairean soukous.

This great musical institution [which was to become known as 'l'academie de la musique congolaise moderne'], was founded on June 6, 1956 when Franco, 'De la Lune' Daniel Lubelo (rh.gtr), Jean Serge Essous (sax), Bosuma Dessouin (conga), Pandi Saturnin (perc), Landot Philipe 'Rossignol' (vcl) Roitelet Munganya (bass) and some friends played their first dance under the name of OK Jazz in Kinshasa (Leopoldville).

The musicians were all session players at Loningisa studios where they had been tutored and directed by the guitarist Henri Bowane. As well as playing in the house band, Bana Loningisa (Loningisa Boys), most had released 78rpm records and had already scored several hits before they started as a gigging band. When they recorded these tracks later in 1956, the singers Vicky Longomba and Edo Nganga had joined. The following year, Antoine Armando Brazzo added his guitar accompaniment.

Franco had joined Loningisa in 1953 at the age of 15, initially playing with Dewayon and the Watam band. 'At the time I was skinny, just a kid who played guitar which we called Libaku ya nguma (a hollow-bodied electrified guitar known as a 'lucky break') and the guitar was bigger than me.' He made such an impression that he was signed to a 10-year contract. Franco became Congo's first true pop star, sponsored to model clothes, endorsing products and enjoying a huge fan club. Musicians contracted to the record label were not supposed to work outside studio time, but in 1956 the Loningisa boys formally organised themselves into a working band, sponsored by Oscar Kashama, owner of the OK Bar. They still recorded under the names of individual members, while accompanists were also credited, sometimes as 'ensemble OK Jazz'.

Track 1, En Entre OK, On Sort KO, was a theme song and slogan for the band in which all the members are introduced. Considering its content, this can be counted as the debut release of Africa's greatest orchestra. Subsequent releases came regularly every few weeks, although the band's personnel shifted frequently. On track 19 Ah Bolingo Pasi they are joined by visiting Senegalese horn players. A major reshuffle occurred in 1957 but, throughout many upheavals and power struggles, Franco became established as the accepted leader. Loningisa closed down before Congo's independence in 1960, but OK Jazz evolved into a massive organisation and Franco' s personal reputation was never equalled. Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, OK Jazz was the yardstick for African dance music. And this is where it all started.

 

Additional notes by Dr Kazadi wa Mukuna
Center for The Study Of World Musics, Kent State University, Ohio.

OK JAZZ
Franco (standing at right)
with OK Jazz. Photo © Depara,
collection Revue Noire

'The introduction of the electric guitar had brought an end to an era dominated by troubadour-like singer/musicians and brass bands, and it became a melodic instrument par excellence in the new ensembles known as 'jazz bands'. These years delineate a period when the newly-defined style of guitar music known as Musique Congolaise Moderne was struggling to emerge from under the influence of Latin rhythms, and musicians were attempting to intrpret dance rhythms derived from their respective ethnic backgrounds on new instrumentation. This CD contains compositions which reflect both musical and non-musical characteristics of this era and showcase the proficiency of Congolese musicians on foreign musical instruments.

This collection contains some songs such as Pasi Ya Boloko [by Pandi] and Franco's Merengue in which acoustic guitars are used, but on the majority of tracks electric guitars are heard. As these songs demonstrate, the electric guitar came as a revelation to Congolese musicians who were intrigued by its electronic echoing effect. Among the leading guitar players of the period, Franco used this technique to its fullest.

The length of these songs is short compared with today's, because the guitar was being explored by musicians who had not yet mastered the emulation of traditional melodic instruments, likembe, madimba, etc, or transplanted the rhythmic intricacies of melorhythmic instruments, as became practice later between the lead and rhythm guitars. Equally important is the nature of the dances, most of them Latin, that were being transformed with domestic steps and rhythms. As both music and dance were being defined, songs did not include improvisatory sections, but rather contained relatively extended interlude passages which explored the melodies of the songs. The 78rpm records of the 1950s also limited songs to three minutes.

As the period progressed, ensembles became identified with specific Latin rhythms. Orchestre Rock-a-Mambo, whose leader Rossignol features on many of the songs on this album, continued to prefer the cha-cha-cha, while OK Jazz excelled in rumba and bolero rhythms. Among the genre of topical songs composed and interpreted by OK Jazz none has ever reached the mastery of the genre known in Lingala as 'Mbwakela'. Track 20, Motindo Na Yo Te, belongs to this category. Some of the songs are historically pertinent because of their origin. During the pre-independence years, the West African practice of social association was already rooted in Kinshasa. Unlike the early associations which maintained their own brass bands, a number of Congolese female associations such as La Pause, La Mode collectively known as 'miziki' (sing. moziki) existed without musical ensembles. Instead they commissioned famous bands to compose songs for their annual events. RetroAfric has included two of these compositions Eponi Banganga and Tondimi La Mode, both by Edo.'

Congo ColossusBibliography:
Congo Colossus - The Life and Legacy of Franco & OK Jazz, by Graeme Ewens, Buku Press, 320pp (Paperback ISBN 0-9523655-1-0 and Hardback ISBN 0-9523655-0-2). Hardback and paperback copies distributed by Stern's. AVAILABLE SOON ON THIS SITE.

Franco & OK Jazz
'Originalité' (RETRO2XCD)

 

 
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