Sonic Clairvoyance

Addendum to The Return of the Rumba. “Franco, the Sorcerer of the Guitar.”

Luba Bilumbu Diviners
This image shot in 1989 by the late, respected Africanist professor and curator, Mary Nooter Roberts, depicts Luba Bilumbu diviners performing a series of Morning consultations in Zaire. From “Insight and Artistry in African Divination”, edited by John Pemberton III (Washington, D.C. ; London : Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000).

The role that mysticism, sorcery and divination play in the life of Congolese music and especially in the life and career of Franco—one of its prime progenitors—is what I want to prognosticate in this addendum. Rumours abound of his possible initiation into the occult. There can be no doubt that he received many blessings from Ngangas (priests and spiritual healers) across the continent. In Africa, ancestral worship via music as a medium has existed since time immemorial. Many of the Zairean musicians would visit Marabous/Ngangas as far afield as Senegambia and Benin to enact supernatural exchanges of empowerment—somewhat akin to the virtuosic guitar skills Delta Bluesman Robert Johnson displayed after he exchanged his soul with the devil (Oshun) at a Mississippi crossroads back in the early 20th century.

The prophetic Griot-like positioning of Franco as soothsayer and oral messenger of the multiple grass roots, ultimately welded his oft-controversial hegemonic bond with President Mobutu Sese Seko—Zaire’s despot dictator, who, after independence, oversaw the death of its first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. Franco, under certain duress, was President Mobutu’s ultimate Authenticité propaganda machine. His spiraling, mesmeric guitar motifs tapped into ancient Sanza and Balophone frequencies, which, coupled with his Griotesque voice created an uncanny firebrand power of seduction and persuasion. Franco was an early exponent of Afrofuturism, with his close-knit community of musicians channeling and creating a unique fusionistic, panoptic blend of new Black African music within the confines of an ever-expanding collective. The band’s costumes and choreography perfectly fit in with the performativity associated with Afrofuturism, as did the lyrics, which often invited the participants to literally lose and surrender themselves in the kaleidoscopic realms of rhythm and dance. Liberation through dance was nothing new to Zaireans. The Kuba, Pende, Yaka and Suku—to name just four cultures of the region whose music has been documented since the advent of the phonogram machine—did exactly this with very large ensembles whose instrumentation included Balophones, various drummers, percussionists, singers and trumpets.

Even with the rupture of the cruel Belgian colonial project music accompanied every aspect of life: from giving birth, to hunting, to giving thanks for a plentiful harvest, to death. Franco’s chant-like choruses propelled his audiences into out-of-body nether regions without ever literally speaking on the topic of utopic outer-galactic theories propounded by the likes of Sun Ra. I very much doubt that Franco had even been exposed to Sun Ra’s music, and if he had, I’m not sure whether or not he would have appreciated it. As he often stated, he made music for people to dance to; he was all about the Sebene, the groove—he was a Shebeen dweller—but his was a uniquely Zairean Odemba groove, not to be confused with Afrobeat, Funk or Soul. On the occasion of the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Kinshasa between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Mobutu invited James Brown to play a concert at Zaire 74—the accompanying music festival organized by the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. The concert took place in the Kinshasa football stadium. Franco and the T. P. O. K also performed. Franco attended the J.B. concert, but was apparently unimpressed with “The Godfather Of Soul’s” funk music and his accompanying deft footwork displays of the Mashed Potato and Camel Walk dances. Franco let it be known that he felt snubbed and somewhat insulted that J.B. had not shown any apparent interest in the local Zairean music scene or its personalities. But in actual fact, J.B. and Franco shared much in common in regard to being Sonic Healers, and both wore the crown of The Hardest Working Men in Show Business. During Mobutu’s dictatorship it was forbidden to listen to western music, though those with access to long-range radios obviously did. Furthermore, music from the African Diaspora was not categorized as western; hence, the line-up at the Zaire 74 music festival, which Mobutu expressed was intended to present and promote racial and cultural solidarity between African-American and African people. After more than thirty years of tyrannical rule and homeland pillage of Zaire’s natural resources, President Mobuto Sese Seko was overthrown by Laurent Kabila in 1997 and died in exile in Morocco of prostrate cancer, leaving behind a bankrupt country and a personal wealth estimated at somewhere between $1-5 Billion.

Bringing us back up to now, Transcultural music exchange in the Transnational African Diaspora and the continent of Africa is more plentiful in this our 21st century. The rapid access of information and knowledge sharing via technology has enabled digital collaborative practices to flourish. Within Afro-sonic navigational terms, we may permit ourselves to encounter imagined utopic planetary terrains, therein enabling the reinvention of past, present and future time-looped frequencies. I am arguing that Sonic Clairvoyance is in fact a musical form of ESP that can be used as an aid to visionistically dive into Black fantastical realms of hitherto unknowns.

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