My many encounters with Latasha Nevada Diggs, hanging in my Berlin studio to contemplate her Ebonic morphs into Edo-period Japanese and multi-patois linguistics.
It all leads to Africa. We’re in this triangle space, right, and each point has its individual vocab, she said.
Yeah, twenty years on, me and my good friend Latasha are still discussing and experimenting with the binary interweave of the word and sonics. We started our friendship back in 2001 as band mates in Burnt Sugar, the Arkestra Chamber. That was in NYC on the eve of 9/11. She was one of the first vocalists I experienced all looped out in a loop station, plus the other pedals she was tweaking as she sung, screamed, cried and sermonized in the whirl of Butch Morris-esque conduction (real-time composition) loosely sketched from the baton of Greg “Ironman” Tate.
Yeah, those were the early days of Burnt Sugar’s unabashed forays into terrains of improvised non-predictability, and those are the days I count as my most erudite and mind-bending, sans drugs. Sonic moments where we fifteen musicians were lifting each other as a melded mass into trodden and untrod spaces – quite often a Miles-meets-Maggot Brain space with a tinge of Barok and Karnatic raga to aptly glide into a dark groid urban bashment beat.
That encapsulates the situation in which I met my good friend Latasha Nevada Diggs, so please enjoy Part 1 of our interview.
Satch Hoyt: You know this interview is for my blog, Afro-Sonic Mapping: Tracing Aural Histories via Sonic Transmigrations, so I’m actually looking at black narratives from a sonic perspective. Obviously you were in the UK at a very important period – a transitory period. And there were a lot of amazing musicians coming through. Would you like to talk a little bit about some of the musicians that you met and what was sonically going on in that particular period of the ‘60s?
Margaret Busby: Well, I’ve talked about my late ex-husband, Lionel Grigson – he was a jazz musician. He played trumpet and piano. After he graduated, he was involved with the university jazz group. In London he used to play at this place called the Troubadour on Old Brompton Road; a lot of musicians came through his group and played there. In fact, just down the road from that place was a pub, which was actually a gay pub, but it had a West Indian session on Sunday at lunchtime, I believe. So, a lot of West Indians came through.
SH: Did you know Joe Harriott?
MB: Yeah, I knew Joe Harriott. I was also thinking the other day about this Trinidadian, David “Happy” Williams, who actually used to play with Lionel. He went to the States and ended up playing with Cedar Walton for decades. Freddie Redd was also in London at one time; there was also Alexis Korner – so, blues and jazz musicians. Fela’s fusion was also going on. Actually, I published a book about Fela in 1983 – called Fela, Fela: This Bitch of a Life.
SH: Who wrote that book?
MB: A Cuban friend of mine called Carlos Moore. He was in Paris for a long time – that’s where I first knew him.
SH: What period was that?
MB: The ‘60s.
SH: That’s when James Baldwin and Richard Wright were there, as well.
MB: Yes. There were a lot of expatriate blacks in Paris in that era; they were all connected. There was Carlos, there was a Jamaican called Lindsay Barrett, who’s a writer and wrote about music – he’s still a friend of mine.
Back in the ‘60s, I also saw Black Orpheus and fell in love with Brazilian music. In fact, I started to learn Brazilian Portuguese just because I loved the music and wanted to understand the lyrics. I remember one song seemed like the beginning of a novel; it started: “I’ve got the marks of her teeth on my arm.”
SH: All of those instruments in Brazilian music – the berimbau or the cuica – are actually Angolan instruments, which is quite amazing. I was in Luanda last year working on my project. I’m actually looking at the way the music left the continent; I’m arguing, in fact, that the slaves acted as portals and carried this mnemonic network of sounds over to the Caribbean basin and the Americas. Then, amalgamations occurred in New Orleans with French classical music, creating jazz in Congo Square and so on and so forth.
MB: And then going back to Africa.
With Randy Weston over the decades. Left: with Randy Weston, ca. 1983; Right: Fatou Weston, Pam Weston, Chris Calhoun, Randy and Margaret Busby.
SH: Exactly. For instance, with Franco and the rumba in Congo. Or with Fela studying here, then going to America, meeting the Black Power Movement, and then his music becoming politicized, as well as all of the jazz influences that occurred.
MB: Well, even with people like Randy Weston. In fact, one of the early books I did – around 1970 – was by Valerie (Val) Wilmer and it was called Jazz People. It featured interviews with about a dozen jazz musicians, including Randy. Actually, one interview she had done was not quite an interview – it was with Miles Davis and went like this: “When I said later, baby, I meant later.” That’s what she got from Miles.
Then we did another book by her later – which was just reissued last year by Profile Books – called As serious as your life. The title is a quote from McCoy Tyner, who had said, “Music is not a plaything; it’s as serious as your life”.
SH: Do you have a Miles Davis story?
MB: I heard him in London. I think the last time I heard him was not long before he died. I used to go to Ronnie Scott’s a lot and I heard a lot of good people there. It’s funny how in those days you took things for granted; like, you’d just hang out with Freddie Hubbard after a gig, or whatever. I was sharing a flat with my sister in Belgravia and Freddie and his then-wife would come by. I actually used to write song lyrics, as well.
SH: Who did you write song lyrics for?
MB: For my husband and his band. The singer Norma Winstone also sang some of my lyrics – lyrics to something called “Some Time Ago”. Norma recorded it, as well as some Brazilian singer. In fact, by chance I came across a CD and there was this singer, singing my lyrics – I’m not sure how she found them. So, not a lot was recorded, but I used to write a lot of lyrics.
SH: What about the Brotherhood of Breath – did you know those guys: Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo and Mongezi Feza?
MB: Yes, of course. Abdullah Ibrahim is also a friend of mine. A lot of them played in a jazz club – the Jazz Cafe. Happy Williams played with Lionel; Philly Joe Jones, the drummer, was in London for ages. He used to hang out with us. There were quite a few who came through London at that time.
Satch Hoyt: You – Allison & Busby – along with New Beacon and Bogle-L’Ouverture were the pioneers of black publishing; you were at the vanguard. What, in your assessment, is the state of black publishers and writers in the UK right now?
Margaret Busby: Well, at the moment, I suppose there are more black writers published than previously.
SH: But what about the material that’s being published? Because what you were printing in that early period were giants like C.L.R. James and Sam Greenlee.
MB: The thing is, they weren’t giants at that time. Nobody wanted C.L.R. James or Sam Greenlee.
SH: Regardless of whether anybody wanted them, C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, for instance, was the book on the Haitian Revolution.
MB: In retrospect it is. But then, why was he out of print? If I were still publishing, there are many things that are out of print that I could reprint. What happens a lot is that it’s about fashion. I’m also always stressing the need for more black people involved in publishing – whether in autonomous companies or within the mainstream, because there are still very few people in the mainstream companies. You can say there are more books published, but then it’s about who’s choosing those books and why they’re choosing them. They’re picking those books because that’s their view of what African literature should be. And yet, the buzzword these days is ‘diversity’, or ‘inclusivity’ – everybody’s talking about it. But why talk about it? Just do the right thing. Also, what happens when you have these initiatives? They talk about publishing more books by working class writers, or BAME – I hate that word – ‘Black Asian Minority Ethnic’ writers. It’s all virtue signifying. The industry itself hasn’t changed.
And yes, there’s a need for more of us to actually want to be in publishing. Often, I’m at events or on panels and I ask the audience how many people want to be a writer, and everybody’s hands go up. And then you ask who wants to be a publisher and nobody’s hand goes up. But you can do both; it’s not as if you have to choose. You just have to be involved; otherwise they get to decide that you can come in the door. We have to be there at every level, whether it’s on the newspapers, etc. Otherwise, who chooses to review your show or my book? Who are the gatekeepers? We need to be part of it, so that there can be other perspectives. That way, everybody ends up benefitting. You want a richer literature, a richer artistic community. You don’t want everything to be narrowed down to just a small voice or coterie of people that are all thinking the same way. It would be very strange if you walked down the street and everybody looked exactly the same, spoke the same, or wore the same clothes. How boring would that be? But sometimes you feel that’s how it is. I can still go to a publishing party where I’m the only black person. And it’s not as if they even notice, because that’s the way it is for them – that’s the norm.
SH: Well, hopefully we will see a big show of hands next time you start asking that question about who wants to be a publisher.
MB: I hope so. That’s why, in the ‘80s, I was part of an initiative called GAP (Greater Access to Publishing). We were campaigning for more diversity within the industry. We had seminars for black women that wanted to get into publishing – showing them how to write their CVs. We had seminars with career officers in order to get them to suggest publishing as a possible career to people. It’s necessary for people to see that there are people like them within other industries; otherwise, why would they think they belong there? I know people who have become publishers because they knew I was there. Otherwise you’d think: well, that’s an industry that’s totally white; I’m not allowed in there.
SH: Who do you think are the bright literary black stars on the horizon now?
MB: There are so many – there are 200 in my book: New Daughters of Africa. The point of doing this book was to show in this list of 200 that you may recognize some names, like Zadie Smith, but you may not have heard of all the others, even though they’re worth reading. And why haven’t you heard of them? Because they just let one or two of us through and they get the promotion and the publicity and everybody else is just lucky if they get published. It was the same with the first book, Daughters of Africa, because in those days – in the early ’90s – you would have thought there were just three black women writers: Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. I wanted to say that they’re great, they’re in my book, but actually, here’s another 200, and they date back to ancient Egypt. The subtitle of that was: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Decent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present. In this new book, as well, since it’s ordered by decade of birth, I wanted to make sure there were a few representatives from the 19th century, or even earlier, to show that we didn’t all just happen in the 21st century. There actually were literate, creative black women writing way back. So there is a handful from that earlier era and then the most recent of them were born in the 1990s. It’s just to show there is a breadth, there are links, and there are batons being passed and people who influenced others. It also shows that people are different, but there’s also a collective shape.
SH: You’ve done that in this book.
MB: Well, I’ve done this, but I could do another one tomorrow with a completely different set of names. I asked someone who was interviewing me recently if they could do a book of just 200 white women, or European women – everybody from Jane Austin to J.K. Rowling – and if they would be satisfied with just 200. Of course they wouldn’t. So why should we say that there are only 200 women of African decent? There are many more. I started with a spreadsheet of hundreds of names.
SH: How did you curate down to 200?
MB: There’s nothing scientific about it. Again, I’m not saying that the people in this book are the only ones that deserve to be showcased, or that these are somehow better than those that aren’t in there. If you did an anthology it would be a completely different selection. It’s the same with prizes. When someone wins a prize, it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily scientifically better than everybody else; it’s just who the judges have chosen on that particular day. So it might have been people that I knew, people whose email addresses I had, people who were suggested by other people; some people replied, some people didn’t reply, others missed the deadline. There are many reasons why the people who are in there are in there. But it’s not deliberately excluding anybody. I mean, left to me, this book would be 10 times the size.
SH: So, there’s going to be another 5 volumes?
MB: Well, If I could do it, and if it was something seen to be profitable by the publishers, of course I’d do it. I’m really pleased with it and everybody in there deserved to be in it, but I can’t stop thinking about all the people that are not in it.
Last week I was in London – invited to attend the private view of Get Up Stand Up Now, a seminal group exhibition at Somerset House, in which I’m delighted to report my work is also present. Yes, right there alongside many wonderful, groundbreaking artists. The exhibition, curated by Zak Ové , is twofold: an homage to his father’s oeuvre and a 50-year survey of black creativity in the UK. It was there at the opening that I had the honour to be introduced to the very gracious Margaret Busby by our mutual friend Maureen Bryant. A portrait of Margaret hangs in a conspicuous place in the exhibition – it was taken by filmmaker-photographer Horace Ové . They are friends and have been since the late 60s. Her work, like Horace’s, is the stuff of legend. They were the early Black British way pavers – the pioneers that picked up the baton from the likes of C.L.R. James, and along with Stuart Hall, John La Rose and Kamau Braitwaite, amongst others, laid the foundations of what we now call Black British Culture. Please read the interview I had the immense pleasure to have with Margaret in London last week.
Satch Hoyt: Margaret, I’d like to know a little bit about your background. I know you were born in Ghana.
Margaret Busby: I was born in Ghana; my mother was born in Ghana; my mother’s mother was born in Ghana. My father was actually born in Barbados. When he was a baby, they moved to Trinidad and so he grew up there. My father was bright and he won the Island Scholarship to come study medicine in Britain. He became a doctor in Ireland, and then, once he qualified, he became a GP in East London in the 1920s. Then, in 1929 he migrated to Ghana. My mother’s father was born in Dominica, and he came to Britain in 1899 to study law. He was a delegate to the first Pan-African Conference in 1900. Then he migrated to Ghana in 1902. So when my dad went in 1929, he gathered at the Dominica House, which was the name of my grandfather’s house in Ghana – like all the others did – and that’s where he met my mom.
SH: Were you there during the advent of independence?
MB: I was away at school at the time of independence. The West Indians that came there were quite often doctors and lawyers, and they all practiced in the rural areas, where there was no medicine – no treatment for people. So, because my father was a doctor in the bush, there were no schools where we were living. My father wanted my brother and sister and I to get a proper education, so we went to Britain to get our schooling.
SH: Where did you go to school in Britain and how was it for you going to school there in that period?
MB: I went to school in Sussex. It was an international school, but I think my sister and I were the first black people. By the time we left, I had friends from Liberia, Trinidad and other places. My mother had problems finding us a school, though. I remember she told me that she had tried to get us into some school somewhere and was told that they didn’t mind, but it’s the parents of the other children who would. It certainly was that era in which black people were a rarity. After I went back to Ghana and did my A levels, I came back and went to university in London when I was 17. Even then, it was still hard to find places to live. It was that era of “sorry, no blacks or Irish.”
SH: Where were you living at that time in London?
MB: I lived at one time in a hostel. One time I lived in a private hotel, which was the only place I could find, and so I had to choose between getting a bus to college or eating, because I couldn’t afford to do both. Another time, I had some short-term place in a flat with some actress; yet another time, I was in the YWCA. At another point, I had a boyfriend, who I later married – he was an English musician and was at college in Cambridge. His name was Lionel Grigson. In fact, he was a professor of jazz at Guildhall. So, at one point I remember going up to visit him and had to stay with him, because I had nowhere else to stay. It wasn’t an easy time to be black in Britain.
SH: And to be a woman in that era…
MB: I think it’s only in hindsight that you see things like that. When I started publishing, I was at university. There was a friend of mine who I had known since school days – she was having a party because her first book was being published, and she was also about to get married to somebody at university. I was invited as a friend of hers, and her fiancé had invited his friends. So, at this party, I was introduced to someone called Clive Allison, because I was doing things in publishing at my college and this guy was, too. He asked what I was going to do when I graduated. And I thought I might go into publishing. And so we said, well let’s start a publishing company. We actually conceived it when we were both still at university. Later, we graduated and really did start it – Allison and Busby. But he was a white guy and I was a black woman, and so, of course, everybody assumed that he was in charge.
SH: In that era, what was Allison and Busby predominately focused on in regard to your program for publishing works? Was it quite radical?
MB: It was radical. In fact, somebody said to me once that you never knew what Allison and Busby was going to do next, but you knew it would be interesting. It was doing things that nobody else was doing. We were young and we didn’t have any experience, didn’t have any money, didn’t know what the conventions were, and didn’t know how many copies to print. We also didn’t have any distribution, so, we’d stop people in the streets asking if they wanted to buy a book. That’s how we started. And we both had to get jobs doing other things to subsidize ourselves. I had a major program on the African Service at BBC, and I got another job with some publishing company. By then, I was married to Lionel, and so a friend of his was in Mykonos and bumped into this African American, Sam Greenlee. Sam had this novel he had tried to get published and nobody on either side of the Atlantic wanted it. It had been turned down by maybe 40 people. So, this friend of Lionel’s said that he knew somebody who started a publishing company, and he sent Sam to me. The manuscript was about the CIA, which didn’t want to be accused of not having any black people working for them and so employed this guy – who sat by the door – so that they could show they integrated. Meanwhile, this guy learns all the tricks and is plotting a revolution in Chicago. So we thought, this is really a good political thriller-satire and we ought to get this serialized in the national newspaper. We then sent the manuscript to the observer telling them that we’re about to publish this first novel and we’d like you to serialize it. Of course, we didn’t know the conventions or we wouldn’t have sent it to them. But they sent it back saying, “you ought to know, we don’t publish fiction, and if we did, it wouldn’t be a black power first novel like this.” But that’s not the end. Not knowing any better, we sent it back to them saying, listen: you’re wrong. And they ended up extracting it. So that was the first novel we ended up publishing in March 1969: The Spook Who Sat by the Door. We were doing things that we wanted to do, and things nobody else wanted to do. We reprinted things that had gone out of print, for example.
SH: Can you name a few of those books?
MB: My dad had been at school with C.L.R James in Trinidad, so he was a family friend. I knew he was out of print, so I started publishing with three collections of selected writings and then went on to publish The Black Jacobins, his major book, which was out of print. And Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, which C.L.R. hadn’t published before – a lot of them. We published a lot of African Americans: H. Rap Brown’s Die Nigger Die; Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama.
SH: Any black women writers published in that period?
MB: Yes, we published black women writers. We published Rosa Guy; we published a Nigerian woman called Buchi Emecheta, who went on to become very successful. It was a mixture of things that we just wanted to do and that no one else was doing. We just went for it. There was a kind of camaraderie with John La Rose’s New Beacon Books, which started in 1966. That was the first black publishing company in this country. Allison and Busby was the second black-headed publishing company in 1967. And then there was Bogle-L’Ouverture, which was cofounded by Jessica Huntley and Eric Huntley in 1969. Those were the three main black-headed publishers in that era. And there was a lot of collaboration; we shared printers, artist Errol Lloyd designed covers for all of us. Then, the international book fair of radical black and third world books came out as a collaboration with New Beacon and Bogle-L’Ouverture. So, there was a lot of crossover between what we were all trying to do. Some things were more successful than others, but we just went on from there.
Addendum to The Return of the Rumba. “Franco, the Sorcerer of the Guitar.”
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.
Happy New Year to all of our dedicated Afro-Sonic Mappers – may 2019 bring you all that you desire and deserve.
In this century, any in-depth research on African music will require the researcher to travel to various locations in the Transnational African Diaspora. In this particular researcher’s humble opinion, the most fruitful locations are the Americas and the Caribbean Basin. A good example is the preservation of certain Congolese rhythm patterns by the Palenque in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. The Palenque, who were Maroons (runaway slaves) – the word Maroon comes from the Spanish word Cimarrón, based on a Taino Indian root – were, in fact, the first free Africans in the Americas. The Spanish crown issued a royal decree in 1691, guaranteeing freedom to the Palenque de San Basilio. The music of the Palenque is distinctly African; in fact, they employ drum patterns that we no longer hear on the continent. Their language, Palenquero, is influenced by the Bantu Kikongo languages of Kongo and Angola, as well as Portuguese and Spanish. African communities with a Maroon history are to be found dotted all over the Caribbean Basin. Some of these thriving communities possess living archives of African music genres that are often no longer found on the African continent. Another location in the diaspora where Africanisms abound is on the island of Cuba, where an entire Afro-sonic lexicon can be unravelled.
In this post, I would like to investigate the migration of the rumba by focusing on one of its preeminent pioneers: the illustrious and most highly respected, groundbreaking Congolese musician, François Luambo Luanzo Makiadi (1938-1989). Franco was born in the village of Sona Bata in Bas-Zaire, and was raised in Léopoldville – now known as Kinshasa. Franco cut his music chops as a young child playing Kebo party music on a homemade guitar at his mother’s stall at Wenze Ya Bayaka market – named after the Bayaka people – in Ngiri-Ngiri, in order to attract customers. He was seven years old when he had made his own guitar, and by age twelve he made his professional debut in a band called Watam (The Delinquents), whose bandleader was guitarist Paul Ebengo “Dewayon” – Franco’s early mentor. At age fifteen he signed a 10-year recording contract, waiting another seven years to become the bandleader, and eventually formed OK Jazz, later renamed T.P.O.K. Jazz – which stood for Tout puissant orchestre Kinois (The most powerful orchestra in Kinshasa). The ‘Jazz’ in the band’s name is an anomaly, as Franco’s music has no hints of the African-American jazz genres that most of us are familiar with. Yep, there’re no traces of Trane, Monk, Miles or Wes (Montgomery) in his music style – which is a Congolese rumba of the Odemba style, often comprised of three percolating guitars, a six-piece vocal section, a seven-piece horn section, bass guitar, a drummer and a conga player. All was led by Franco on guitar and part-time lead vocals. Although, like jazz, some of the compositions have a duration of over fifteen minutes, Franco’s music is mainly comprised of the verse chorus and seben format. The seben is an instrumental section in which the rhythm section stops playing, giving an open space for spiralling syncopated guitar riffs – which always put me in mind of Sanza (Kalimba) patterns. The seben is very much akin to the break in funk music. In the T.P.O.K. videos, Franco often wears a very stoic expression on his face; it is very apparent exactly who the boss is. I would go as far as to say, like James Brown, he might have fined his musicians if they played a wrong note or arrived late for rehearsals. Franco’s prolific output amounted to T.P.O.K releasing two songs a week over his nearly 40-year career, which ultimately comprised a catalogue of some 1000 songs.
Like Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Franco owned his own nightclub, named Un Deux Trois, which – like Fela’s club, named The Shrine, in Lagos, Nigeria – became the epicenter of music in Kinshasa. Franco redefined African dance music with his unique style of rumba, Soukous, and transported it all over the African continent. Kenya deserves a special mention as a country that wholeheartedly embraced Franco’s music. Zairian musicians often toured there and some even emigrated there. Orchestra Super Mazembe was a Kenyan band whose members all hailed from Zaire. Their song, Shauri Yako, was an international hit. In the 70s and 80s, all of the Kenya clubs swayed to the sounds of the Congolese rumba and Soukous music. Some of the T.P.O.K. musicians moved to Nairobi, creating their own bands and attaining individual success. When I lived in Mombasa, I experienced Franco’s music at both the Sunshine Club and the Florida Club, where I sometimes played with the house band.
Franco’s relationship with president Mobutu Sese Soku is laced with controversy, as he dually courted and criticised the government. For Mobutu, Franco was a shining example of Authenticité, also known as Zairianisation, the official state ideology to promote African values and institutions. Franco sang his songs in Lingala1, a hybrid language; his music had a distinct Congolese-African folkloric sensibility, especially in the vocal melodies and in the syncopated guitar lines. He also wore non-western attire, even though he did not adopt the Abacost, which was a Chairman-Mao-style tunic that Mobutu urged all Zairian men to adopt – inspired after a 1972 visit to Beijing. Zairians were also urged to drop their colonial Christian names in favour of African names. An overall mental de-colonization was prescribed in the total exorcism of King Leopold’s ghost and Belgian colonialism. Franco was also the master of allegorical lyrics; his use of Mbwakela – the art of criticising without being easily understood – was a mainstay in his oeuvre. In 1966, he released Luvumbu Ndoki, a threnody for the victims of Mobutu’s public executions, which had been carried out in that same year. This was a clear rebuke against the ruling regime and, resultantly, throughout his career, certain songs of his were censored.
Within the folds of his many-layered, shape-shifting persona was his conversion to Islam. In the throes of the illness that led to his death, he reverted back to Catholicism. In tandem with these shifts, he went through various name changes over the course of his lifetime, moving from his Christian name, indigenised as L’Okanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Makiadi, and, in accordance with his conversion to Islam, adopting the name Aboubakar Sidiki. In addition, he was referred to by many nicknames; among them, the Sorcerer of the Guitar, as well as Le Fou (the Crazy Kid), Franco de Mi Amor (Franco My Love), Officer of the National Order of the Leopard, Grand Maître of Zairean Music, the Balzac of African Music, Grand Maître, and Yorgho (Godfather).
Which brings us full circle to the origins of the rumba and the oft-touted proclamation by certain writers and critics that Congolese music is Latin based. In fact, before the 1940s, Afro-Cuban, or rather (shall we rephrase that) Congolese music, found its way back to the Congo after a long hiatus due to the Black Atlantic slave trade; the interlocutor being the shellac/vinyl phonograph record transported by African sailors returning home via Matadi – the main port during the Belgian Congo colonial rule.
“The mid-1950s really saw the birth of Congolese music as a vital entity. African music had been introduced on to Radio Congolia (later Radio Congo Belge) as late as 1942-43, and after World War Two it was also played on Radio Brazzaville, a powerful, 30Kw station, set up as a long-range propaganda medium by the French government-in-exile which had its base there during the war. The dance music proved popular not only with Africans but also with European listeners. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that the Belgian colonists not only tolerated, but actually enjoyed African music to an extent which never occurred in other colonies. This was no doubt due to the undeniable charm and sensitivity of the music, as much as any quirk of European culture. African musicians would be invited into the white neighbourhoods to play at European dances; many years later, when reminiscing on the early days, Franco reprised the popular Victorian waltz, After the Ball, as an example of the kind of melodies they had been expected to play for the whites.” (Congo Colossus: Life and Legacy of Franco and OK Jazz, Graeme Ewens, 1994:57)
I am arguing, in fact, that Franco was a chief proponent in reintroducing, reinventing and commercializing the rumba. In a personal interview given a few years before his death, Franco responded to the question of the Latin influence in Congolese music as follows:
“Some people think they hear a Latin sound in our music… It only comes from the instrumentation, trumpets and so on. Maybe they are thinking of the horns. But the horns only play the vocal parts in our natural singing style. The melody follows the tonality of Lingala, the guitar parts are African and so is the rumba rhythm. Where is the Latin? Zairian music does not copy Cuban music. Some Cubans say it does, but we say their music follows ours. You know, our people went from Congo to Cuba long before we ever heard their music.” (from Congo Colossus: Life and Legacy of Franco and OK Jazz, Graeme Ewens, 1994:74)
Here, Franco is clearly defending the Congolese roots of rumba. I argue that, in order to trace African aural histories, we are absolutely obliged to look at the Afro-sonic signifiers that accompanied the black bodies in the forced migrations of the Black Atlantic slave trade. In this particular case, it was the Congolese slaves transported by the Spanish that introduced the rumba in Cuba. The same applies to the Mambo, Cha-cha-chá and Salsa. The reintroduction and the various amalgamations forced or otherwise via musical instrumentation and socio-political constructs throughout the centuries continue to play an extremely important role in the perception and cultural positioning of music in African and African diaspora communities. The roots of most Afro-Cuban musical styles were formed in the Cabildos – self-organized social clubs for the African slaves. The Cabildos were formed from separate ethnic groups, i.e., the Yoruba from Nigeria; the Calabar from Cameroon; the Fon from Dahomey, Benin; Senegambians; and a percentage brought from the Sudan by Arab Slavers, known as Kikiribu Mandingas. The Congolese were most probably the largest community; they remain a major influence on the formulation of Cuban music.
“The topic of Afro-Cuban music is particularly revealing because it represents a form of cultural practice that is expressly African and yet profoundly cosmopolitan. Afro-Cuban music was so attractive to Congolese musicians and audiences not only because of the way that it sounded, but also because of what it stood for. It provided urban Congolese with an alternative to a particular form of cosmopolitanism – Belgian colonialism – that was strict and stiff, if not cruel and in many ways anti-cosmopolitan.” (Congolese Rumba and Other Cosmopolitanisms, Bob W. White)
Franco was one of the first African musicians to highlight the AIDS epidemic when it stormed the continent. His song “Attention na SIDA” was a 15-minute call for caution in sexual relationships and a plea for government intervention. Franco fell ill and died shortly thereafter, in 1989, at the relatively young age of 51 in a Belgian hospital. Back home, his death was met with national sorrow. His body was flown to Zaire, and President Mobutu ordered four days of state mourning. Hundreds of thousands of people thronged the streets. He, like Fela, was a continent-wide influential personality and also, like Fela, is rumoured to have apparently died of an AIDS-related disease. RIP Franco.
1 “Lingala, Ngala is a Bantu language that belongs to the Niger-Congo language family. It is spoken in the northwest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in the Republic of the Congo. here are also Lingala speakers in Angola and in the Central African Republic. It is thought that Lingala originated from Bobangi (Bangi), a language that has historically functioned as a trade language along the Congo River. With Belgian colonization of the area in the latter part of the 19th century, Bobangi spread into other areas. The colonial administration needed a common language for missionary and administrative purposes, and Bobangi fit their purpose. This common language was called Bangala, as distinct from Bobangi. Catholic missionaries attempted to standardize the language and expand its vocabulary. In the process, the language was renamed Lingala, a term that first appeared in 1903.” (Lingala, Irene Thompson)
In the historiography of Black sonics we have umpteen examples of music. In the role of initiator, motivator, propaganda tool and weapon, with its accompanying creators being beautified, martyrised, lionised and in many cases sacrificed, music is as old as humanity. The power of music in the context of rallying communities around a manifesto or creed reaches back to the resistance movements formed at the onset of Colonialism throughout the African continent and transported to the Transnational African Diaspora.
The osmosis of resistance due to insurmountable chapters of confrontation on the journey has amplified the canon of black sonicity to a degree not witnessed by any other marginalised cultures. The insurmountable decibels of violence meted out onto the black body from the onset of the Black Atlantic slave trade to the present racial profiling and constant police brutality has long done peaked the epic meter scale. In 2013, in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the murderer of seventeen-year-old African American Trayvon Martins, the #BlacklivesMatter movement was formed. Black Lives Matter has raised a global awareness of the continuing mortalities befallen on Black folk by overzealous police departments in the USA and other geographical locations in the Transnational African Diaspora (there exists many other grassroots organizations combating the various violent problems that plague the community).
This catastrophic systemic plantation violence has been passed down from generation to generation. Domestic violence and its various violent off-shoots are an ongoing subject in Black music genres from the Blues to R&B, Hip Hop, Dancehall, Grime and Afrobeat. Which brings us to the other focus of this post: In 1977, the Nigerian military raided the Kalakuta Republic, the residence, recording studio and commune headquarters of Nigerian musician, vocalist, composer and activist Fela Anikalapo Kuti (1938-1997). The raid was in retaliation to the lyrical contents in the Fela Afrika 70 album Zombie, which was a smash hit and scathing attack on the Nigerian government and its military oppression on the Nigerian people. The property was ransacked, the on-site recording studio equipment and master tapes were burnt, Fela was severely beaten and his elderly mother, feminist-activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was fatally thrown from an upper-floor window of her house, which was situated opposite Kalakuta. Fela responded by sending his mother’s coffin to the Dodan Army Barracks, Lagos – the official residence of General Olusegun Obasanjo – and composing two songs: Coffin For Head of State and Unknown Soldier. The songs referred to the official inquiry that claimed the property had been destroyed by an unknown soldier.
Fela’s main axe, another name for a musician’s instrument, was the tenor saxophone. This was his weapon: the weapon with which he co-preached his Yabbies, along with his often caustic lead vocals cushioned by his female background vocalists – referred to as his Queens – who, resplendent in costume and face paint, chanted in circular call-and-response patterns. Fela’s saxophone style can be located somewhere within the King Curtis – Albert Ayler zone – not smooth like Curtis, but nonetheless wading in those R&B waters. His approach to Jazz was not of the Bebop or Straight-ahead styles, but more in the Crusaders, Roy Ayers camp. Fela’s tenor tone is a plethora of grating squeak spluttering fragility. At times his solos feel like they’re literally going to fall apart, but they don’t. This fragility becomes an integral element of his multiple strengths.
Fela was the principle pioneer of the music genre Afrobeat, a term he coined in 1968. Afrobeat is a fusion of Fuji, Highlife, Jazz and Funk music. In 1958, Fela’s parents sent him to London to study medicine, like his sister and two brothers, but he opted for music and attended the Royal college of Music in London, studying trumpet. On his return to Nigeria he moved to saxophone, he also played electric keyboards. On stage he was accompanied by a large ensemble of musicians and dancers and the majority of his songs were sung in Pidgin English, enabling most Nigerians and a larger global audience to understand the messages in his lyrics. He remained a Pan-Africanist and militantly outspoken opponent of marginalisation of the underprivileged and the politically oppressed. In 1978 he created his own political party, MOP (Movement of the People) and in 1979 audaciously attempted to run for president of Nigeria, but his candidature was refused. Four years later, Fela stood for president once again but was prevented from campaigning by the police, who raided his home, beating and imprisoning many of his friends and followers.
Fela, like Robert Nesta Marley and others in the canon, epitomises the Black musician, vocalist, activist who composed music as a socio-political weapon. Outspoken, resonating Black bodies of resistance, rallying against oppression, the ongoing oppression which is firmly rooted in colonialism.