Franco: Africa's First Modern Pop Superstar Congolese guitarist Franco is not well-known in America, despite being one of Africa's greatest pop artists. That might change, now that the the African guitarist and band leader's tracks have been released on two albums, Francophonic Vol. 1 and 2.


Music Reviews

Franco: Africa's First Modern Pop Superstar

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The African guitarist, singer and bandleader known as Franco was that continent's first modern international pop-music superstar. He sustained a busy career from when he was 18 in 1956 until his death in 1989 at age 51. Yet he remains little known in America - he never found a US record label to support him and he did only two brief tours here in the mid-80s.

Music critic Milo Miles explains how two recent Franco collections - the best ever made - finally could establish him in this country.

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FRANCO (African guitarist, singer and bandleader): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

MILO MILES: Now that Nigerian Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti has a hit Broadway play devoted to him, it's safe to say he's finally edged into the pop culture pantheon a dozen years after his death. It's an open question whether an even bigger star in Africa, who's been dead even longer, the Congo's soukous master Franco, will ever get the same acclaim. He deserves it, but he doesn't translate as well, and not only because he never sang in English. Even so, two recent collections, "Francophonic Volume 1 and Volume 2," make a powerful case through music and performance alone that Franco was an irresistible force - the sorcerer of the guitar, as he was called. When Franco started out in the '50s, jazz was a generic term in the Congo for modern music and his band was called OK Jazz. They could be wonderfully sweet even when loudly boasting, as in this early hit that describes their effect on audiences. Translated, it says you come in OK, you leave KO'd.

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FRANCO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

MILES: The early style of Franco and other groundbreaking bandleaders like Grand Kalle was called Congolese rumba, but that term was about as exact as jazz. The music mixed several Latin styles and several indigenous folk modes, all the blends being very easy to dance to, though not as familiar to American ears as, say, Fela's funk and soul influences. One of Franco's strengths was that even after he became a wealthy star, he kept the sound of OK Jazz stripped-down and propulsive - no string sections, no heavy electronics. During the '70s and '80s, he downplayed the standard horn section and underscored the interplay of three electric guitars in a jamming section called the sebene. These hot-licks workouts became so popular the music was given a new name, soukous, and Franco was without question the grandmaster.

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MILES: With help from Ken Braun's liner notes, it's easy to make out Franco's social role as a popular musician. Like the honky-tonk country performers and the first electric blues players in America, Franco celebrated, exhorted and comforted a vast audience that was moving from the traditions of rural life to the harsh jumble of urban striving. The Congo and much of Africa was throwing off colonialism and trying to get a grip on the modern marketplace at the same time. How not to foolishly waste your cash was a regular Franco theme - but so was how to spend it.

Here's the catchiest Volkswagen commercial you'll ever hear, "Azda."

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FRANCO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

MILES: The "Francophonic" collections feature the most vibrant, full sound of any Franco releases, particularly in the vintage sides. Volume 2 is a recommended introduction. All of the "Francophonic" cuts present sweet choruses, tart horn sections and the great sorcerer's guitar swirling through everything, presenting Franco as he always wanted to be - larger than life, stronger than death.

BIANCULLI: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed "Francophonic Volume 1 and Volume 2."

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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