This post is about Franco's first steps into professional music.
I gladly refer you to Gary Stewart's "Rumba On The River", which is very detailed about this period (and is highly recommended in general).
A key figure in this early part of Franco's career is Paul Ebengo a.k.a. Dewayon. I'm still looking for someone to translate this excerpt from a documentary about the "birth of the O.K. Jazz", but other sources seem to confirm Gary Stewart's description that young François Luambo learnt the first chords on the (acoustic) guitar he 'borrowed' from Dewayon. Dewayon, who came from a relatively well-to-do family and was four years older, acted as a kind of big brother to the timid Franco.
Albert Luampasi, who lived in the same neighbourhood of Léopoldville, was a musician with the Ngoma label and performed with his own group. He allowed the children of the quartier to come and watch the rehearsals at his house. And, as he owned several guitars, he let them practise and showed them some chords. Seeing the eagerness and the talent of the two boys, after a while he even let them join his group when he played at so-called 'matangas' (meetings of mourning). Franco even participated in the rehearsals for the track "Chérie Mabanza" (Ngoma 732) which Luampasi sings in this video.
Luampasi, who mainly sung in the kikongo language, stopped recording in 1957.
Eventually (I suspect it was a little later than 1950 - as Gary Stewart writes) Dewayon formed his own group which he called "Watam" (derived from "watama", which means something like "layabout"). In 1953 they auditioned with Henri Bowane (who had switched to the Loningisa label) and were taken on. Dewayon's first composition for Loningisa was "Nyekese" (Lon 100, on CRAW 4), recorded February 5, 1953, with the B-side "Bokilo Ayebi Kobota" ("Ayebi Kobota" on CRAW 10).
After that, in August the same year, "Tuba Mbote" and "Esengo Ya Mokili" (Lon 111, on CRAW 10 and 4), and -probably in the same recording session- "Bikunda" and "Group Watam" (Lon 112).
In October they recorded two more compositions by the then 19-year old Dewayon: "Naino Ngai Nakufi Te" and "Bana Bosenge" (Lon 120, the latter on CRAW 10).
A month later saw the debut of a musician from Brazzaville, bassist Daniel Lubelo, who called himself "De La Lune", with the compositions "Marie Kanisa Ngai" and "Bitumba Mabe" (Lon 121).
And twelve days later, on November 17, 1953, Franco recorded his first composition: "Kombo Ya Loningisa", followed a day later by "Lilima Dis Cherie Wa Ngai" (Lon 122).
This last song evoked quite a few chuckles among those who knew the 15-year old, as it was about Franco's first girl friend, and the shy Franco certainly didn't have a reputation as a womanizer.
Nearly two years passed before Franco's next composition was recorded. The delay was not due to Franco, but to the Loningisa studio moving and the lack of recording activity. Only 6 records were recorded for the Loningisa label between November 1953 and October 14, 1955, when Franco entered the studio, and with him a new singer: Philippe Lando, who was better known as "Rossignol" ("nightingale"*).
Backed by Franco, Rossignol sung "Bayini Ngai Mpo Na Yo", which in the literature is sometimes called "Bolingo Na Ngai Na Beatrice", and "Marie-Catho" (Lon 129). Both compositions were credited to Franco, but this got the Loningisa label into some trouble, as the melody for the first track was taken from a song titled "Mélodie Mexicaine" by the French duo Patrice and Mario (personally I don't hear the similarity...).
The boys didn't know that if you borrowed a melody you had to (at least) report this on the label....
By the way: not Béatrice, but Marie-Catho was Franco's girlfriend.
Rossignol would later state, as Ntesa Dalienst recalled, that Franco was the best backing vocalist he had worked with.
The songs established Franco as a composer. A month later he recorded "Flamingo" and "Veronica Wa Mboka Bukligham" (Lon 134), the latter about another girlfriend who had deserted Franco. After this track Franco decided he wouldn't sing about girls anymore, as the subject provoked too many rumours.
A few months later (March 1956), with the next recordings, the outlines of Franco's early guitar style were getting clear in the "boogie woogie cosmopolite" "Elo Mama" and the already quite mature "Naboyi Yo Te" (Lon 138), both featuring Franco singing the backing vocal next to Rossignol's falsetto.
In the same month Victor 'Vicky' Longomba joined the Loningisa label. After the CEFA label had gone bankrupt in 1955, he had worked in a factory for a bit.
His first compositions with Loningisa, "Mokili Mobongwani" and "Nalingi Ozonga" (Lon 140), are also the first songs with Franco.
In the next post about the early part of Franco's career I will focus on the birth of the O.K. Jazz.
A file containing all the Loningisa tracks in this post can be found here (but you can also download them individually).
*and let me take this opportunity to point you to a post about another (Nigerian) nightingale on the With Comb & Razor blog