October 12 marked the 24th death anniversary of Congolese music legend Luambo Lwanzo Makiadi, popularly known as Franco.
His ghost continues to hover over African music, an enduring testimony of his stake as the continent's greatest and certainly one among the world's best of all times.
In a multifaceted accolade, the discussion could veer from rhumba to a story of a generation that shaped the continent and in each Franco remains an icon in the spirit of endurance and motivation to take Africa to the world.
His gift of a unique voice and proficiency as a composer yielded an estimated 500 recordings in a career spanning 34 years as kingpin in the seminal group Ok Jazz.
Franco still continues to serve the insatiable thirst for his music 24 years after his passing.
Much has been written about his virtuosity as a guitarist, composer, arranger and singer all harnessing his reputation as one in a rare breed of musicians who remained true to their craft till the very end.
Even when he had to play seated, too weak to stand, the grand maitre was there for himself and his band reputably was Africa's most successful music group.
In a recent interview I asked Teddy Kalanda of Them Mushrooms fame what keeps a group going and his answer was that musicians stick together for as long they share a common goal.
“They break up when they begin to pursue individual goals,” he said.
As a bandleader, Franco remained focused on the group turning it to a breeding house for an ever growing galaxy of music talents.
“His ability to keep the band together at the height of its success with so many great musicians in his line-up was the true mark of his genius not just as a musician but also as great manager of human resource,” says promoter DS Njoroge who handled OK Jazz tours to Kenya.
There has been talk about his close association with then President Mobutu Sese Seko but it does not negate his own virtuosity as an artiste and band leader.
In music, Franco is still the personification of rhumba which is a variety of Cuban music that is based on a similar big band concept that was popular in the 1950s.
Veteran Kenyan musician David Amunga was around to see the genre rise in the late 1950s and describes it as the music of the first generation of the African elite who constituted the ruling class as many African countries gained Independence.
They were the first black people to venture into the ballroom dance experience and the sophistication of the then emerging social class.
“It was a new setting of urbanites who were well-schooled in urban sophistication and the concept of Pan-Africanism that was in vogue in the early 1960s,” Amunga said.
He recalls the likes of Tom Mboya as a greater rhumba enthusiast and many in his generation were in that mould.
It was not any different in the Congo and former OK Jazz singer, the late Madilu System, noted this describing rhumba as the music for the African elite.
“Our fans are the big people,” he once said.
On actual music formation, Kenya pioneer music promoter, the late Peter Colmore, once noted the relationship of Congolese rhumba to Cuban music with the same close vocal harmonies and the flamenco guitar style.
The genre was widely embraced in East and Central Africa as the ingredient in emerging innovation that targeted the urban audience.
Unlike most other artistes with long careers whose music changes with the time, Franco's music did not and never appeared to affect his popularity.
I once asked him why this was so and his answer was that it was the strength of his art, remaining unchanged but still able to consistently pick new generations of fans through the several decades of his career.
This was notwithstanding the fact that other singers made efforts to change the rhumba creating more upbeat variation with gritty guitar riffs and use of animations.
In this vein, Orchestra Sosoliso, who had a short lived union in the 1970s, temporarily disrupted the OK Jazz reign with a vibrant variation of rhumba punctuated by use of high flown guitar licks, a shift from the laid back Spanish style harmonies of OK Kazz.
And there was Kiamagwana Mateta (Verckys) who incorporated more authentic traditional technique with the saxophone as noted in the song Dona which displays an intensely mournful conversational application style in the horn solo.
He appeared to take the eventual shift with Basala Hot which sounded like the suitable progression from Fela Kuti afro soul but turned out to be the exit from active music.
Tabu Lay also has delectable variation and Muzina, though remaining rooted in traditional DRC rhumba, has a bounce and vocal hook line that is unique.
Papa Wemba has tried different things with his rhumba but appears more entrenched with the more traditional form. But probably the more eclectic offering came from Ray Lema who had built a career with rhumba that drew heavily from his many years as a seminarian where he studied western classical music.
His 1998 orchestral classical piece Dreams of the Gazelle was hailed as a masterpiece and performed by many orchestras in Europe.
It is an African opera based on a concept of the anxiety suffered by African immigrants in Europe constantly playing hide and seek with host governments much like that of gazelles in the African jungle that are forever wary of predators.
More recently, Koffi Olomide in his early years cultivated a career playing music that was more Spanish, earning the tag of African Julio Iglesias but made a clear shift with African music in intervening years.
The rise of European-based Kekele was an interesting shift in DRC rhumba but did not survive for long,
Now the traditional rhumba is back on the saddle on stage, radio and television with young artistes taking it up.
There is debate on how much longer the genre can last but for now it appears quite safe.
“I still hear from Zaiko Langa Langa with the mainstream rhumba and they are big in Congo,” says DS Njoroge.
On the future, British music programmer Guy Morley sees focus shifting to the sub-genre from Tanzania which has continued to enjoy increased international interest.
“I think Tanzanian is playing better rhumba than DRC and this will sustain the interest in the music,” says Morley.
Njoroge agrees and adds that although Congo helped to raise the profile of the music across cultures, Tanzanians have created more memorable songs that have had longer resonances and are much more accessible.
Groups such as Simba Wanyika with the hit “Sina Makosa”, Western jazz with “Rosa”, Afro 70 with the classic “Dirishani” form part of the rich collection of rhumba classics from Tanzania which have survived generations.
There is similarity in the circumstances that fostered the boom in that genre in DRC and Tanzania in that music had strong support from their governments and the musicians formed a strong movement that embraced the genre.
In DRC, OK Jazz, Orchestra Veve, Afrisa International and Doctor Nico all played rumba while in Tanzania, Morogoro Jazz Band, Jamhuri Jazz Band, Cuban Marimba Band, Western Jazz, Afro 70, Nuta Jazz, Vijana Jazz and Dar es Salaam Jazz Band also fitted in the same groove.
It takes such a concerted movement to overwhelm a market and it did for that genre.
By contrast, music did not enjoy good support from the Kenyan government. In addition, early big bands in Kenya sought different music identities with early groups like The Ashantis, Air Fiesta Matata, Hodi Boys, Cavaliers and solo artistes like Fadhili William, Fundi Konde and Daudi Kabaka borrowing influences.
They criss-crossed jazz, bossa Nova, Caribbean and South African music.
However, Maroon Commandoes was as close as rhumba could get and bango music is indeed rhumba with a different name.
Generally, Kenya was a melting pot of African and other cultures, allowing diverse influences at all levels.
The arrival of Zambian musicians Benson Sembeye, Nashil Pitchen and Peter Tsotsi (Pole Musa fame) injected a Southern Africa flavour in Kenyan music that appeared to counter the rhumba dominance in the country but more importantly created delectable diversity.
This influence is felt in the music of late Daudi Kabaka – whose death anniversary is on November 26 – and in David Amunga's classic “America to Africa” which was a major hit in Southern Africa.
Unlike the peers in DRC who maintained strong Cuban roots, Tanzanians injected a distinct Arabic influence and had the advantage of Kiswahili widely spoken in Africa and abroad.
Notably, the Congolese who settled in Tanzania adapted to the Kiswahili language and the general influence of rhumba played there to develop a unique crossover sound.
The likes of DDC Milimani and Orchestra Macquis are good examples.
This is also noted in Kenya where Kangee Brothers (with Lee Tenor Mauwa), Orchestra Virunga (with Samba Mapangala), Super Mazembe, Orchestra Popolipo and Mangelepa also incorporated local influences to flavour their DRC rhumba.
Incidentally, this East African flavour has found appeal internationally partly due to the accessibility through a language that is widely spoken and a song structure that makes it easy to follow.
But all this may not dampen enthusiasm for Franco's music and his material continues across the world ensuring his presence at the global level. “It is hard to think of anybody who has had such profound impact in African music and this will keep his name flying,” DS Njoroge says.
To many, the legend lives on. – The Star
• John Kariuki can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org