rumba on the river

abetiO.K. Jazz, distinguished Congolese rumba band, formed 1956; disbanded 1993. Classic late fifties lineup: Antoine "Brazzos" Armando (born Kinshasa Apr. 21, 1935; guitar), Nicolas "Dessoin" Bosuma (born Mbandaka, Congo-Kinshasa, July 11, 1936; died Kinshasa 1990; conga), "Franco" Luambo Makiadi (born Sona Bata, Congo-Kinshasa, July 6, 1938; died Brussels, Oct. 12, 1989; guitar), Edouard "Edo" Ganga (born Brazzaville, Oct. 27, 1933; vocal), Célestin "Célio" Kouka (born Brazzaville, 1930s; maracas, vocal), Victor "Vicky" Longomba (born Kinshasa, Dec. 13, 1932; died Kinshasa Mar. 12, 1988; vocal), Daniel "De La Lune" Lubelo (born Mambenga, Congo-Brazzaville, Mar. 15, 1934; bass), Isaac Musekiwa (born Zimbabwe, 1930s; died Kinshasa, 1990; saxophone.).

Band's original six—De La Lune, Franco, Vicky, clarinetist Jean Serge Essous, singer Philippe "Rossignol" Lando, and Conga drummer Saturnin Pandi—worked as session musicians at the Loningisa recording studio in colonial Léopoldville (Kinshasa). These musicians played evenings at the O.K. Bar, from which they took their band's name. Franco emerged as a prolific composer and virtuoso guitarist, Vicky and Edo established the group's vocal style, and Musekiwa brought with him the era's finest sax chops. Their songs included much praise of themselves, "Babomi Mboka" (village killers, i.e. their music knocked people dead), and much discussion of affairs of the heart, "Chérie Tokanisa Tolingani" (dear, let's think about when we loved each other).

Independence for both Congos in 1960 saw Brazzavilleans Célestin, De La Lune, and Edo return home to help form Bantous de la Capitale. Vicky also left for a brief turn with African Jazz. New recruits included guitarist Simaro Lutumba, and singers Joseph "Mujos" Mulamba and Kwamy Munsi. De La Lune, Edo, and Vicky returned in 1962 and saxophonist Verckys Kiamungana hired on the following year. Band's best song of the period, "Ngai Marie Nzoto Ebeba" (I Marie whose body is wearing out), was the story of a Kinshasa prostitute.

In 1967 six members quit to form Orchestre Révolution, a band with ties to the country's president, Joseph Mobutu. Révolution's rapid demise eventually led to closer relations between Franco and Mobutu. Band campaigned for Mobutu at election time and promoted his 1971-72 authenticity program.

Franco, a self-educated man, was a natural leader, but he shared control of the band with older, formally educated colleagues like Essous, De La Lune, Brazzos, and Vicky. One by one they all departed—Vicky being the last, in 1971—leaving Franco completely in charge. The original six had become twenty by the time Vicky quit. Under Franco the group quickly grew to more than thirty. Notable members of the early-to-mid-seventies band included singers Michel Boybanda, Josky Kiambukuta, Lola Checain, Youlou Mabiala, Wuta Mayi, Sam Mangwana, and Ntesa Dalienst. Songs written by Simaro and sung by Mangwana—"Ebale ya Zaire" (River Zaire), "Cedou" (a woman's name), and "Mabele" (the earth)—sustained O.K. Jazz through the early seventies.

In addition to praise for its hits, band received criticism for occasionally performing risqué songs penned by Franco. Three such songs, "Hélène," "Jacky," and "Sous-Alimentation Sexuelle" (sexual undernourishment), left nothing to the imagination and landed Franco and nearly all of his musicians in jail for three weeks in 1978. Band continued to grow during this period with the addition of guitarists Papa Noel and Gerry Dialungana and singer Ndombe Opetun.

The country's deteriorating economy and Franco's business interests abroad kept him in Europe for extended periods during the eighties. As a result, two wings of the band developed: a Franco-led wing based in Brussels, and a Kinshasa wing under Simaro's leadership. Band's songs lengthened markedly as tastes and technology changed. Hits of the eighties, usually written by Franco, often covered an entire LP side. "Non" (no, 1983), and "Tu Vois?" (you see?, 1984) condemned women for various misdeeds, real or imagined. "Mario" (1985) and "La Vie des Hommes" (the life of men, 1986) took men to task. In a brilliant pairing, Franco shared vocals on these songs with new recruit Madilu "System" Bialu. A final, bittersweet ballad, "Batela Makila na Ngai" (protect my blood, i.e. my children or generations, also released as "Sadou"), featuring Franco and Madilu came out in 1988. Franco died the next year.

O.K Jazz stayed together under Simaro's leadership until conflict between the musicians and Franco's heirs led to its demise at the end of 1993. Simaro and the musicians continued to perform as Bana O.K. (children of O.K. Jazz). A revival O.K. Jazz led by Franco protégé Youlou Mabiala with the blessing of Franco's heirs surfaced at the end of the nineties.

By any measure—quality, output, longevity—O.K. Jazz ranks as one of the premier African bands of the twentieth century. With nearly one hundred albums and hundreds more singles to its credit, O.K. Jazz knew few challengers in the recording studio. Although Lingala lyrics were largely unintelligible outside of central Africa, songs like "Mabele" and "Mario" became continent-wide hits and even enjoyed booming sales in Europe and North America. As potent purveyors of the Congolese rumba, O.K. Jazz influenced generations of musicians at home and abroad.
© 2011 Gary Stewart

Franco et le Tout Puissant O.K. Jazz (Sonodisc CD8461) 1989; Franco et l'O.K. Jazz (Sonodisc CD36502) fifties recordings reissued 1991; Franco, Simaro et le TP OK Jazz (Sonodisc CD36520) seventies recordings reissued 1992; Franco, Vicky et L'OK Jazz (Sonodisc CD36521) sixties recordings reissued 1992; Franco et L'OK Jazz (Sonodisc CD36522) sixties recordings reissued 1992; Franco et L'OK Jazz (Sonodisc CD36529) sixties and seventies recordings reissued 1993; Franco & le T.P. O.K. Jazz (Sonodisc CD36538) seventies recordings reissued 1993; Franco Chante "Mamou" (Tu Vois?) (Sonodisc CDS6853) eighties recordings reissued 1994; Les Rumeurs (Sonodisc CDS6981) 1994; La Belle Epoque (Sonodisc CD36553) sixties recordings reissued 1996; Nakoma Mbanda na Ngai (Sonodisc CD36571) seventies recordings reissued 1997; Originalité (RetroAfric RETRO2XCD) fifties recordings reissued 1999; Francophonic vol. 1: 1953-1980 (Stern's STCD3041-42) 2008; Francophonic vol. 2: 1980-1989 (Stern's STCD3046-47) 2009.

M. Lonoh, Essai de commentaire sur la musique congolaise moderne (Kinshasa, 1969); S. Bemba, 50 ans de musique du Congo-Zaire (Paris, 1984); C. Stapleton & C. May, African All-Stars (London, 1987); G. Stewart, Breakout: Profiles in African Rhythm (Chicago, 1992); Mamba Toko W. Autopsie de la Chanson de Luambo Makiadi Franco (Paris, 1992); G. Ewens, Congo Colossus (North Walsham, U.K., 1994); Manda Tchebwa, Terre de la chanson (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, 1996); M. Sinnock, "You Who? Youlou!," The Beat (vol. 18, no. 3, 1999); G. Stewart, Rumba on the River (London and New York, 2000).