Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Milo Miles writes a biographical piece on Franco.
The African guitarist, singer and bandleader known as Franco was the first modern international pop-music superstar in the continent, a sensation not only in his native Republic of the Congo, but throughout central Africa. He sustained a busy career from when he was 18 in 1956 to his death at 51 in 1989. Yet he remains little known in America — he never found a US record label to support him and he did only two brief tours here in the mid-80s. Fortunately, Franco recorded a huge amount of material — and two collections were recently released that could finally establish him in this country.

Now that Nigerian Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti has a hit Broadway play devoted to him, it's safe to say he's finally edged into the pop culture pantheon, a dozen years after his death. It's an open question whether an even bigger star in Africa, who's been dead even longer, the Congo's soukous master Franco, will ever get the same acclaim. He deserves it, but he doesn't translate as well, and not only because he never sang in English. Even so, two recent collections, Francophonic Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, make a powerful case through music and performance alone that Franco was an irresistible force — the so-called "sorcerer of the guitar." When Franco started out in the '50s, "jazz" was a generic term in the Congo for modern music and his band was called OK Jazz. They could be wonderfully sweet even when loudly boasting, as in an early hit that might have described their effect on audiences. Translated, it says "You Come in OK, You Leave KO'ed."
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