I had intended to finish this post last Saturday, July 6, as it was the date on which Franco would have celebrated his 75th birthday. But both the warm weather here in the low countries, plus work and (especially) social obligations have prevented me from completing this task.
So almost a week late, I would like to commemorate this true giant of African music, a giant who despite his huge influence on African and - through this - world music in many respects remains completely unknown to the general public in large parts of the world, by sharing two selections from his work.
The first of these is the album "Chez Fabrice à Bruxelles" which was released on the Edipop label in 1983.
In my experience this is an album that not many people will mention when summing up their favourite works by Franco and his T.P. O.K. Jazz. This is a pity, but not for the most obvious reason.
The most obvious reason being that this is the album that contains the first (almost 19 minutes) track combining the vocals of Franco and Madilu System: "Non". This combination would prove hugely successful in the following years, with the albums "Très Impoli" (POP 028, 1984 - with "Tu Vois?", which is probably better known as "Mamou") and, of course, "Mario" (CHOC 004 and CHOC 005, both from 1985).
To be honest, I am not a great fan of the (also late) Madilu. While I understand the reasons for his popularity, my preferences are with other singers.
But, as Ntesa Dalienst put it in an interview in 1990 (parts of which have been posted by Aboubacar Siddikh on his YouTube channel), in the last years of his life Franco composed songs for the voice of Madilu. According to Ntesa, this choice must be seen in the light of Franco's continual endeavour to incorporate other popular Congolese styles into the music of the T.P. O.K. Jazz. From 1973 onwards he had (no doubt helped by the position he had obtained both within the music 'business' and in relation to the political powers of - then - Zaïre) attracted singers from the African Jazz school of Congolese music (Sam Mangwana, Josky Kiambukuta, Ntesa Dalienst and others). Ntesa names "Non" specifically as a song intended to integrate the style of Pepe Kallé.
While Ntesa stated that the love for this music style was Franco's main motive, I suspect that commercial motives must have played a role. And especially as Franco was trying, in 1983, to gain access to the American and European market and wanted to use the broadest possible scope of Congolese music to do so.
At the same time Franco did not want to lose any of his popularity with his Congolese/Zairean public. So he continued to address them on issues which can best be described as 'everyday issues'. "Non" is a mix between a love song and a song about a social topic. In short, the song is about a girl's refusal to marry a married man. Seen from a current, western perspective the lyrics are blatantly sexist, even verging on misogynistic. Whether this means that Franco can be described a misogynist is, however, not as obvious as it may seem. A lot of Franco's songs describe opinions held by (a larger or smaller part of) the Zairean public. In many cases they do not necessarily always represent Franco's personal view.
Getting back to the album, I find the A-side musically more interesting than the B-side. This side contains two tracks, "Frein à main" and "5 Ans ya Fabrice". I don't know the lyrical content of the first song, apart from what appears to emanate from the title (a "frein à main" is a handbrake, and I assume Franco is not referring to the handbrake in a car).
The second song is a sequel to a song from 1980, simply called "Fabrice". It is a continued ode to the tailor in Ixelles, Brussels frequented by Franco and some of his musicians and staff.
There is a third ode to the same craftsman, "Fabrice Akende Sango", which was released after Franco's death on Sonodisc CD 6981, and which also features Ntesa, but this time with Sam Mangwana, - and not with Josky (as in this version). Sadly the Franco's absence in the post-production of that last version is very noticeable....
I like the A-side not just for the solid chorus, but also for the complex arrangement. Perhaps not as classic as "A l'Ancienne Belgique" from 1984, but well en route to that peak in the 1980s repertoire of the T.P. O.K. Jazz.
Over the years I have found that a lot of listeners have problems distinguishing Franco's guitar in the melee (or - if you like - mêlée) of guitars. In "Frein à main" and "5 Ans ya Fabrice" his guitar is on the far right of the stereo image (e.g. 7'15 into "Frein" or 10'36 into "Fabrice").
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