Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • The Very Best of the Rumba Giant of Zaire [Manteca, 2000] A+
  • Rough Guide to Franco [World Music Network, 2001] A
  • African Classics [Sheer/Cantos, 2008] A-
  • Francophonic [Sterns Africa, 2008] A+
  • Francophonic Vol. 2 [Sterns Africa, 2009] A+

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Very Best of the Rumba Giant of Zaire [Manteca, 2000]
See: Franco de Mi Amor. A+

Rough Guide to Franco [World Music Network, 2001]
See: Franco de Mi Amor. A

African Classics [Sheer/Cantos, 2008]
Guitarist-vocalist-bandleader-force majeure Luambo Franco recorded all the time. But in the dire tradition of both dictatorship and imperialism, the catalogue of the greatest African musician of the 20th century comprises many dozens of albums and many hundreds of songs whose availability wanes and waxes and then wanes again. So who knows how long this lovely and riveting mess of a double-CD will be around? It shares a mere four duplications with the Manteca and Rough Guide best-ofs you should buy first. It lists who's singing (14 African idols overall, Franco usually included) and playing guitar (on 16 out of 23 songs, not just the big man but bespectacled hitmaker Simaro). Its main negative is its incomprehensibly unchronological track order. Its great prize is all 17 minutes of the deeply gorgeous "Très Impoli," which does nothing but insult an unnamed somebody right down to, as biographer Graeme Ewens puts it, his "smelly armpits and dirty socks." A-

Francophonic [Sterns Africa, 2008]
As monumental as, and meatier than, Stern's Rochereau retrospective The Voice of Lightness, this overview of the big man's first three decades plays less smoothly because smooth was never the idea--he was John to Rochereau's Paul. The two of them ruled Kinshasa because they were bandleaders on a par with James Brown: shrewd businessmen, charismatic bosses and unrelenting musical conceptualizers. But though Franco helped create the onwards-and-upwards rumba lift that turned their city into the musical capital of pan-Africa, he remained rough and local. His lyrics eschewed romance, his singing favored a declarative midrange, his famed guitar was loud and plangent rather than nimbly lyrical. Where compiler Ken Braun gives us a Rochereau who sheds idiosyncrasy as he defines a genre and masters a personal style, his Franco is always thinking. Even on the later disc, he's masterminding a transcendent commercial and then mourning his younger brother, teasing out a buildup on one song and delivering nonstop climax on the next. Rhythms and tempos shift: here a cha-cha, there a torch song, there some eerie 3/4 time. But he never stints on melody. You may need Braun's notes to get your mind around songs your body has already internalized. Or you may decide to just enjoy how it sounds. A+

Francophonic Vol. 2 [Sterns Africa, 2009]
An overview of the rumba master's final decade: two CDs, 148 minutes, and just 13 tracks, of which I'd previously heard three. After not too long, however, "Kimpa kisangameni," anchored by Decca Mpudi's bewitching bass line, and "Bina na ngai na respect," with Ya Ntesa Dalienst threading his near-tenor through a web of soukous tricks, feel almost as familiar as the famous not to mention super "Mario," presented here in an alternate version that will have special meaning for all you Lingala speakers out there. Don't think these expansive tracks are all unimpeded up-up-up, either--the first 18 minutes and two songs of Disc 2 soar slow and majestic on expressiveness alone (well, melody, sure). Franco's forthright baritone and broad guitar are constants. But for all his skills as a player, singer, and writer, what made him not just Congo's but Africa's greatest musician was his bandleading. And unlike his counterpart James Brown, to whom he condescended for no good reason, he did his damnedest to hire underlings who were even better at singing and writing than he was. A+

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1980s]: Dead of AIDS in late 1989, the Zairean instrumentalist-vocalist-bandleader will be remembered as a crucial 20th-century musician. He invented rumba guitar, which came to mean Afropop guitar, and always stayed on top of the changing rhythms of Zairean pop, which came to mean Afropop. The hot, sweet, soaring, exquisite Omona Wapi, a collaboration with his vocal counterpart and archrival Rochereau, is reviewed within. But though I own half a dozen of Franco's hundred-plus solo albums (as well as a tape of the renowned Sam Mangwana collaboration Coopération), sorting through them is like distinguishing among James Brown albums without knowing English. I do find the 1956 recordings on Originalité rather, well, primitive. Mélodie's Ekaba-Kaba definitely benefits from its Brussels production. Two on Makossa that both seem to be called On Entre O.K. On Sort K.O. (Volume 1, with a green cover, and Volume 5, with an orange cover) are gentle and sustaining.

See Also