Rough Guide to Franco: Africa's Most Legendary Guitarist

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Finally there is an overview in the West of the great Franco, father of the OK Jazz style, literally the most innovative, diverse, and prolific guitarist in the history of recorded music from the continent of Africa. Franco originally hailed from Kinshasa, Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo), and this set chronicles his major stylistic developments and shifts from 1956 -- the seminal "Merengue" is included here -- to his final single, 1987's "Attention Na Sida" (Beware of AIDS). But beginnings and endings don't begin to tell the story of how Franco's restlessness pushed him into unknown territories of six-string exploration. Tonal notions were of paramount importance in forging new musics from the ruins of the old, or extrapolating folk melodies in the process of generating pop music. While it's true that Rough Guides can be faulted for not breaking their own precedent for such an artist and issuing a box set instead of 12 tracks from over 150 albums and well in excess of 1,000 songs, single discs are their m.o. What makes Franco so important, especially in this day and age, is not his considerable technical prowess as a guitarist, but as a cultural synthesist. He alone is responsible for the modern associations that are called to mind when one speaks the hyphenated word "Afro-Latin." For evidence, sample the track "Aya La' Mode," from 1962-1963, a pop tune that has all the tradition inherent in Cuban sons and boleros yet offers in its backbeat percussion the entire history of Congolese folk music. Next up is the saucy "Finga Mama Munu" from 1966, a send-up to all the "mamas" Franco has been with. Its mariachi swagger meets the percussive guitar picking of King Sunny Ade's juju and the township jive that would emerge in South Africa a decade later. But the set goes on and on, carrying and cross-referencing trends and genres from all over the African and Latin worlds, erecting entire architectures of popular song and dance that for their sheer musicality are cultural landmarks for where miscegenation was occurring and when. And it all feels good; check out the guitar break on the 14-minute "Mario," where a quartet of three-note figures wind around each other, syncopating each other until they switch harmonies in the middle. There is also the badassed "Motindo Na Yo Te," where merengue, son, and Afro-pop were blended to create the African rhumba. There are interesting collaborators here as well, such as the phenomenal Sam Mangwana from Tabu Ley and vocalist Mulamba "Mujos" Joseph. In all, this set reveals that, despite his early death at the age of 51, Franco was without a doubt the dominant force in creating popular music in Africa that bridged all of its styles and genres to offer something truly universal, something truly original, and, above all, something truly mind-blowing. Rough Guides: We need the box set.

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