Born François Luambo Makiadi on July 6, 1938, in Sona-Bata, Belgian Congo; died on October 12, 1989, in Brussels, Belgium; son of Joseph Emongo (a railroad worker) and his wife (a breadmaker).

When Franco, known as "the sorcerer" or "the godfather," died in 1989 at the age of 51, his legacy was secure as a pivotal figure in the evolution of soukous, the sound developed in the Belgian Congo (later Zaire, now Democratic Republic of the Congo) from Afro-Cuban music (also called Congo rumba or, simply, Congo music). His popularity, as the Rough Guide reports, "transcended the boundaries of language, class, nationality and tribal affiliation. His music was as hugely popular in anglophone Africa as in the French-speaking countries." During a nearly 40-year career, Franco released more than 150 albums and composed close to 1,000 songs. His vast repertoire was not only a social commentary on Congo's liberation and the long Mobutu dictatorship, but also a celebration of the ordinary pleasures of everyday life. Lauded by the Mobuto government for his role in the state-sponsored authenticité movement, which celebrated traditional or nativist culture, Franco also irked the authorities and landed in jail on more than one occasion.

Born François Luambo Makiadi on July 6, 1938, in the village of Sona-Bata, in the Bas Zaire region. His father worked for the railroad while his mother sold bread at the local market. Franco learned to play guitar on a homemade instrument when he was seven. He was tutored by the guitarist and bandleader Paul Ebengo Dewayon. Franco caused a sensation with his professional debut, at the age of 12, in Dewayan's band.

Starting in the late 1940s, Afro-Cuban music was the rage in many African big cities. Radio stations played 78s imported from Cuba, and the music was imitated by Congolese bands, incorporating their own distinctive sounds. Franco quickly found work as a session guitarist, helping to develop the Afro-Cuban music into the "rumba Congolaise," later known as soukous. The songs were sung in Lingala, a hybrid language that emerged during the construction of cross-continental railroads that allowed workers from different tribal groups to communicate. In 1953 Franco released his solo debut, entitled "Bolingo na ngai na Beatrice" (My love for Beatrice).

In 1956 Franco, then 18 years old, helped form the sextet OK Jazz, along with Jean Serge Essous. By this time, the capital of Belgian Congo, Leopoldville (now Kinshasa,) was bustling with activity. Bars, dancehalls, and recording studios echoed with new musical sounds. OK Jazz wasted no time recording their debut album, whose title track (composed by Franco), "On entre OK, on sort KO" ("You enter OK and leave knocked out"),--soon became the group's motto. When cofounders Essous and Vicky Longomba left the group to join rival Joseph Kabasselleh's Africa Jazz, the most influential band in the Congo, Franco took over sole leadership of OK Jazz (later named TPOK Jazz, with the addition of tout puissant: "all-powerful").

In 1960 the Belgian Congo became independent and, after a tumultuous start, the new country, renamed Zaire in 1971, settled into the relative stability of the Mobutu dictatorship. Kabassaelleh helped OK Jazz secure a recording deal in Europe. Throughout the next three decades Franco and TPOK Jazz were prolific, releasing dozens of records and establishing the popularity of soukous. The music scene in Zaire flourished during this period and many of the musicians who had passed through OK/TPOK Jazz or Africa Jazz eventually struck out on their own. During this time President Mobutu helped establish the authenticité movement, which encouraged African artists and intellectuals to examine their roots and return to more traditional modes of expression. Franco accepted the challenge and, in the words of the Rough Guide "re-Africanized the Afro-Cuban rumba by introducing rhythmic, vocal and guitar elements from Congolese folklore." As his music continued to evolve, Franco used TPOK as a podium from which he could expound his views about changing African society, sometimes testing the limits of the freedoms allowed under the dictatorship.

By the mid-1970s Franco was one of the richest men in Zaire and owned four of the capital city's largest nightclubs. TPOK packed the house at the Un-Deux-Trois Club each weekend. From the late 1970s to early 1980s, TPOK dominated the African charts and saw their popularity spread to Europe. Around this time Franco also converted to Islam and adopted the name Abubakkar Sidikki.

During the early decades of the Mobutu dictatorship, the blossoming music scene was an integral part of the state's authenticité program, which helped confer prestige and legitimacy on the autocratic government. Mobutu declared Franco a grand maître, a title normally reserved for judges, professors and sorcerers, and presented him with a medal from Zaire's Grand Order of the Leopard. Franco's relationship to the Mobutu dictatorship was ambivalent and his outspokenness on issues sometimes brought censure and, on at least two occasions, jail sentences. In 1978 Franco was jailed on obscenity charges until daily protests won his release.

In the 1980s Zaire fell into economic decline, fueled partly by government corruption and profligate spending. The once-vibrant music scene began to suffer and many of Zaire's best musicians went to Europe. Although Franco moved his recording base from Kinshasa to Brussels, Belgium, he did not abandon his home base. His songs became longer and often involved elaborate narratives. In 1985 he released "Mario," a song about a young man who, despite his education, prefers to live off the earnings of his wealthy lover, a woman twice his age. The song became Franco's biggest hit.

As Africa was hit by the burgeoning AIDS epidemic, Franco became one of the first to address the issue with his 1987 release, "Attention na SIDA." This 15-minute-long drum- and guitar-driven song was a clarion call for caution in sexual relationships and a plea for government intervention in the spreading epidemic. Shortly after the release of "Attention na SIDA," Franco fell ill and rumors spread about the cause of his disease. He converted back to Catholicism and was again baptized François Luambo Makiadi. He died after a long illness on October 12, 1989, in Brussels, leaving behind a wife and 18 children. Many believe that the great musician was claimed by the disease he had sung so passionately about.

Franco's body was flown back to Zaire and the government declared four days of national mourning. Crowds lined the streets of Kinshasa to pay their last respects as Franco's hearse passed by, covered with the national flag. State-run radio Voix du Zaire played nothing but Franco's music. He was finally laid to rest on October 17.

by Kevin O'Sullivan

Franco's Career

Began career at age 12, playing guitar in Paul Ebengo Dewayon's band, 1950; solo debut with release of "Bolingo na ngai na Beatrice," 1953; cofounded OK Jazz group, released On entre OK, on sort KO, 1956; group toured Africa, released numerous albums throughout the 1960s-1980s; jailed on obscenity charges, 1978; single "Mario" becomes biggest hit, 1985; recorded "Attention na SIDA,"1987.

Famous Works

Further Reading

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 6 years ago

I must salute the lost rhumba grandmaster that he was a man and a half.Everything that he laid his hand to do he always left a mark of diligence brilliance and condor a rare giant indeed.Up to more than 1000 years to come the great lakes region and Africa WOULD NEVER find franco's replacement.May the man above rest his soul in peace and forgive him his sins if he had any

about 6 years ago

up to now i haven't found the exact words to describe this rhumba grandmaster.though he died before i was old enough to know him, Franco was a man and a half and up to more than 1000 years to come,The Great Lakes Region would never find a franco's replacement or anything close to that.May the man above rest his soul in peace and forgive him his sins if he had any.

about 6 years ago

up to now i haven't found the exact words to describe this rhumba grandmaster.though he died before i was old enough to know him, Franco was a man and a half and up to more than 1000 years to come,The Great Lakes Region would never find a franco's replacement or anything close to that.May the man above rest his soul in peace and forgive him his sins if he had any.

about 7 years ago

the late Franco was the greatest musician african continent has ever had. i do remeber his music were alot of nostolgia candidate nabiso Mobutu that one would dance for long without geting tired. i wish his generation took over from where he left. where is Francos' son? where is TPOK Jazz? Those who the in Kisumu when he visited the lake town can tell what transpired on the day. May God rest his soul in eternal life! Hannington H. wanyama

over 7 years ago

He was a tru African music guru

almost 8 years ago

Franco was the greatest musician africa has ever produced. He is gone yet his type of rumba music is and will always be unique.

almost 9 years ago

This was the greatest african musician of all time.His music still elicits passion trascends borders,race language

over 9 years ago

This man is still much alive through his beautiful music,although i dont understand a word. Any translation available out there?