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Syran Mbenza's new LP brings back Franco to life

“Immortal Franco: Africa's Unrivalled Guitar Legend” marks 20th Anniversary of Franco’s death

22nd July 2009: Syran Mbenza, one of the best Africa’s guitarists today has released a new LP to mark 20 years from Franco Luambo Luanzo Makiadi’s death, an LP that celebrates Franco’s incredible musical legacy.

The LP titled “Immortal Franco: Africa's Unrivalled Guitar Legend” clearly shows that an artiste never dies. Franco was arguably the most famous African musician whose unrivalled guitar playing skills, genius compositions, musical arrangement skills, powerful and sweet voice which accompanied his social commentary lyrics, popularised modern Congolese Rumba music, making it almost the official modern African music.  

In this special project, Syran brings together the cream of African Rumba music, under the name Ensemble Rumba Kongo, to deliver a dozen of the greatest Congolese tracks of all time and celebrate Franco’s dictum "On entre  OK. On sort KO" (You arrive OK and leave knocked out!).

The LP features two original musicians from Franco’s OK Jazz band: the honey voiced Wuta Mayi and longstanding bassist Flavien Makabi. It also features Cameroonian saxophonist Jimmy Mvondo, leading musicians from the pivotal groups Quatre Etoiles and Kekele conguero Deba Sungu and vocalist Elba Kuluma.

Syran who without doubt is one of the best interpreters of Franco's guitar style, grew up hearing Franco's music in Kinshasa and taught himself to play guitar in the same style. His career took off in the 1970s with the influential African Allstars, before he became a part of the all-star soukous group Quatre Etoiles (alongside the newly expatriated OK Jazz singer Wuta Mayi) in the 1980s and then Kekele in 2000.

OK Jazz had a continual influx and departure of musicians during a 34-year-history. As a result Franco's repertoire is massive. Here Syran cherry picks a handful of gems from the Cuban-inspired 1950s, the 1960s Lingala Rumba, the 1970s authenticité and acoustic recordings and the expansive big bands and lengthy songs of the 1980s.
Popularized in the 1960s by Miriam Makeba, Franco originally wrote 'Liwa Ya Wech' in tribute to a childhood friend. Here Ballou Canta gives an evocative rendition of 'Liwa Ya Franco' ('The Death of Franco'), wringing the pathos out of the song. Also in Franco's memory, 'Heritage Ya Luambo' written by Syran, features a refrain of 'Baleli Franco' ('They cry for Franco').

Representing Franco's period of 1970s acoustic authenticity, 'Mbanda Nasali Nini? (Madeleine)' is elegant in its simplicity and features Syran's emotional signature Franco-style acoustic guitar solo. Originally recorded by OK Jazz in 1971, Syran and Wuta have been performing 'Infidelité Mado' for a good 30 years but this is their first studio recording of the luscious rumba. An elaborate story of love and deception, the 1977 'Matinda' features Jimmy Mvondo's conversational sax tones.

Originally a lengthy 14 minute epic, 'Liyanzi Ekoti Ngai Na Motema (Mouzi)' was a huge hit all over Africa in the 1980s. This condensed version still retains the song's enthusiasm and features a magnificent vocal performance from Elba Kuluma, who joined the remnants of OK Jazz under the flag of Bana OK. Part of OK Jazz from 1974-82 and with a mellow French horn of a voice, Wuta sings two of his own 1980s OK Jazz compositions, 'Zozo Visi' and 'Beyou Motema'.
Can music of 30 or 40 years ago be still relevant today? If the music in question is Franco’s, then the answer is a big yes. Franco played the type of music that never goes out of date. In other words, his music never expires!
This is why Syran’s new release can easily pass as a compilation of new hits. In fact those who listen to Syran’s new CD, without ever listening to Franco’s music before can easily think that they are listening to totally new, original hits.

“Immortal Franco: Africa's Unrivalled Guitar Legend” has a taste of new and old, making it quite unique.

Modern instruments and high quality recording facilities used here help bring out some of the elements of Franco’s music which were subdued because of the poor facilities used then to record his earlier hits.
Having listened to most of Franco’s hits, and observed their evolution from his early recordings to the last, I can say with confidence that if Franco were alive today, his music would be quite identical to what Syran and Ensemble Rumba Kongo have performed in this unique CD.

There was fear when Franco (nicknamed the Sorcerer of the Guitar for his guitar playing skills) died, that no one would be able to keep his style of music alive. Syran has proved that he’s a keen follower of the Grand Maître (Gran Maestro) Franco, capable of not only interpreting his music, but also coming up with new compositions which are very faithful to Franco’s style. Ladies and gentlemen, rest assured that Franco and authentic Rumba is here to stay.
Syran and Ensemble Rumba Kongo have done justice to Franco, a man who brought joy to generations of fans of Rumba music. They’ve also done justice to the Rumba lovers, especially to the fans of the Franco, who have been struggling to look for some of these old hits which are either not easily available, or available, but in very poor quality.
I hope “Immortal Franco: Africa's Unrivalled Guitar Legend” will be the first of many Franco’s recordings to come. This is a perfect way of helping conserve Franco’s music. This type of project must be encouraged so that most of those Franco’s hits which are not easily available, can be brought back to life.
The LP has been released by Riverboat Records and will be available in all leading music stores from 27th July in the US and from 10th August in the rest of the world.

Heritage Ya Luambo  
Beyou Motema  
Liyanzi Ekoti Ngai Na Motema (Mouzi)  
Mbanda Nasali Nini? (Madeleine)  
Infidelité Mado  
Rumba Odemba  
Liwa Ya Franco  
Cherie Bondowé  
Zozo Visi  
Tour A Tour


By Stephen Ogongo

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