September 03, 2010

Bossa nova

I can still get very worked up about the barefaced con-job the catholic church and its associates pulled on us when I was a young boy. In those days in the late 1950s and early 1960s we were led to believe that those poor lost souls in the Congo were running around butt naked and without a grain of rice to eat. Good little catholic boys and girls like myself were encouraged to save the aluminium tops of milk bottles, which would - in some mysterious way - help to put an end to the misery of these downtrodden children of God.
It took me almost a decade to find out that I had been the victim of a world-wide conspiracy! Instead of butt naked and starving, in the Congolese capital Léopoldville they were living it up, with bars and music on every corner, the latest fashion, and - come to think of it - all the modern comforts we enjoyed at the time. In those days it was getting fashionable for women to wear trousers (well at least lady trousers...). Ladies with slightly loose morals were seen wearing wigs (I still have a trauma over a wig one of my aunts used to wear). Folk with a bit of money could be seen driving around on a Mobylette (or little egg, as we used to call these motorbikes).

It is exactly about this world that Franco is singing in his song "Quatre Boutons". In fact, he names the Mobylette itself as a symbol of modern life in Léopoldville. Marie, the female subject of the song, has acquired this motorbike through the opening of four buttons. And the four buttons seem to be a reference to the garment this woman opened: a pair of trousers. In those days before the "Recours A L'Authenticité" of Mobutuism it was just as normal for a modern Congolese woman to wear trousers as it was for a progressive Dutch girl. The fact that she received the motorbike plus a wig from a married man, with the implication of sexual favours which had been performed as payment for these modernités caused quite a stir in the more conservative parts of post-colonial Congo (as I am sure it would have done in the Netherlands). Franco defended himself, as he did later with songs like "Paka Lowi", "Hélène" and "Jacky", by arguing that he was only singing about what was happening in daily life. Besides, he was continuing a theme which he started earlier, with tracks like "Ngai Marie Nzoto Ebeba".
"Quatre Boutons" was one of the songs that led Mobutu to appoint a censorship commission a year later....

"Quatre Boutons" is on the A-side of this record on the Pathé label, which get its EP status from the B-side. Of the two tracks on this side, "Didi" and "Jean-Jean", I don't know the story. But it seems likely that "Jean-Jean" is about Franco's friend and bodyguard, who judging by the stories told by contemporaries also acted as an intermediary in Franco's personal affairs. If you listen carefully you will hear his name mentioned in other songs.

You may have noticed that the (front) sleeve of this EP does not mention the O.K. Jazz, but instead refers to the artists as "Orchestre Franco". I remember one of the members of the O.K. Jazz talking about Franco's struggles with (especially French) record companies; if I remember correctly some records were released under this name to circumvent a clause in a contract with another record company. I have tried to recall who told me this, but so far have been unsuccessful. If anyone has more details, please let us know.

While the tracks on the first Pathé EP have been re-released on lp ("Quatre Boutons") and cd (all), those of the second have so far escaped reproduction - let alone digitisation. And that is a huge pity.

This extraordinary collection of marvels opens with Franco's interpretation of a bossa nova, and, as if this is not enough, it is a version of a song made famous by Charles Aznavour (see this great video from 1963) AND it is sung by a woman.
And that's where the mystery starts.
"Miss Bora"
Because who is this singer? It is clear that this is the same lady who sings "Mosika Okeyi Zonga Noki"(on Sonodisc CD 36553). But who is she?
Aboubacar Siddikh suspects she is Henriette Bora Uzima (or Boranzima, which is it?), but I have my doubts. Henriette, nicknamed "Miss Bora" by Rochereau, started off with the O.K. Jazz in 1963 but moved to Rochereau's African Fiesta in 1964 or 1965. I have never read or heard of her recording with the O.K. Jazz, and there is at least one recording of her with African Fiesta. Comparing the singer in this song, a version of the Cuban evergreen "Guantanamera", with the singer in the two O.K. Jazz songs I myself don't hear any similarities. I am including both "Guantanamera" and "Mosika Okeyi Zonga Noki" so you can judge for yourself. I am curious to know what you think.

Apart from the female lead the song is certainly noteworthy for Franco's lightfooted guitar flutterings. But musically it is blown away (in my opinion at least) by the second track on the A-side, "Ba Musicien Ba Mema Mgambo". To me any track with Kwamy is a treat. I think he is backed by Edo Nganga in this track. And I love this staccato singing, but it really takes off when Franco takes control after 1'44. If you liked "Dr. Klerruu" by Mbaraka Mwinshehe: here's where he got the inspiration!!

The B-side opens with a kind of Hank Marvin guitar, but soon switches into a real Franco style bolero, with both Vicky Longomba and Kwamy alternately taking the lead. I can never get enough of these boleros, but I am slightly (only slightly though) disappointed by the lack of 'intervention' by Franco.....
After "Jose Maria" there is another song in the typical rumba style of the mid-1960s O.K. Jazz. "Trouble Trouble" features Vicky singing the lead and again ends (after 2'00) with Franco demonstrating yet another technique in his guitar playing.
The only problem I have with this EP is that the music ends after only 13 minutes....

Pathé EG 926
Pathé EG 930
Guantanamera/Mosika Okeyi Zonga Noki

Alternatively you can download all the songs in one file.

P.S.: the photo on the front of the Pathé EG 926 sleeve (by Gilles Sala, as is the photo on the front of EG 930!) appears to be of the mosque in Bamako. A rather strange choice, considering the songs...

UPDATE March 11, 2014: I have found an alternative version of "Je T'Attends" which appears to credit the singer: see the label on the right.
And Marcelle Bibi is more than likely Marcelle Ebibi, who was a singer at CEFA. She sung with Bill Alexandre, who introduced the electric guitar into Congolese music in the mid-1950s. Readers of Gary Stewart's "Rumba On The River" may remember this photo of her and a very colonial looking Bill Alexandre (in shorts).


Anonymous said...

Great Music!
The only song in that I've heard before is quatre boutons, but never in 100 years would I have guessed what the song is all about. Franco, as always, doesn't disappoint in the other songs either.


joji said...

Once more : thank you very much for providing 'les quatre boutons' and the background info. Indeed, great music!

Do you have the lyrics as well? Like to understand better ...


Peter said...

The folks at Mboka Mosika think it's Miss Bora singing "Je T'Attends":

WrldServ said...

@Peter: Thanks for the link. I'm afraid I still don't hear the resemblance between Rochereau's Miss Bora and the singer of "Je T'Attends"....

Anonymous said...

I have to say--making allowances for frequency response differences between the two songs in your "compare" sample, and for differences in the song's style, they sound like the same singer to me. There's a kind of unevenness at the end of some phrases that make it seem she's lacking breath support, when she clearly isn't, and comes back with pinpoint intonation in the next phrase on the same breath. It's not something I've heard very often. You're far, far more expert on this music than I am, but I can't say I've heard this in US jazz or pop music before.

Regardless, I really like Mosika. I'll have to seek out more of her--if more exists.

Anonymous said...

Make that Henriette Bora Uzima. My bad.