Witchcraft, prison and record shopping in South Africa. John Wizards’ John Withers shares his love for the “Congolese James Brown” Franco and picks a few favourites from his 1,500+ discography.
Following last month’s interview with poet and vocalist Anthony Joseph on the heritage of the great Gil Scott-Heron, our Influences series continues with John Wizards, the South African outfit who came out of nowhere last summer with a self-titled debut on Planet Mu which that promptly secured itself a stop on the high table as one of the albums of the year.
A more than respectable 14th in our Top 100 Vinyl Releases of 2013 list, at the time we called John Wizards “a riotous conflation of conflation of pan-African influence and western pop history” and were thus delighted when the man behind the magic, John Withers, agreed to give us a glimpse of the music that has inspired him.
Steering away from the audible influences of kwaito, palm wine and shangaan which pepper the album, Withers settled on François Luambo Makiadi, or Franco, and his TPOK Jazz orchestra, the legendary Congolese Rumba band that held things down in Kinshasa for almost 40 years, surviving tyranny, censorship and imprisonment to record over 1,500 singles.
When Franco died, 4 days of official mourning were called, and legend has it radio stations were able to play his tracks consecutively for the whole period, without repeating a single one. John Withers picks his way through the extraordinary discography of a man and a band that shaped Congolese music more than anyone else.
How did you first come across Franco?
There’s that Stern’s Music compilation Francophonic, which was released in two volumes and which seemed to be getting a lot of hype so I checked it out. I remember when I first listened to it – the first collection is a lot of his early work, so it’s more influenced by very Cuban music and in that very old Congolese Rumba style which I didn’t like as much, and that took me a little bit longer to get into – but by the time I’d listened to the second volume I was in love with it.
What was it that first captured your imagination about it?
The immediate thing that captured my attention was the guitar work. Not particularly in the early years of TPOK Jazz, but later from the late 60’s, I think, where you have the instrumental ‘sebene’ sections. I loved how intricate, sophisticated and energetic it felt.
What was it that typified a ‘sebene’ section?
Generally the songs are written in two halves: the first is usually slower, gentler, and tells the story of the song. The second is faster and made for dancing. The parts work together, but often the segue feels quite abrupt, at least to me.
Was this kind of thing easy to access when you were growing up in South Africa or did you really have to seek it out?
Historically, I don’t think that there’s a big crossover between Congolese and South African music. I know that soukous became very popular in Zimbabwe and influenced a lot of music, but I don’t think that many, if any, of the famous Congolese bands came to South Africa. This obviously had a lot to do with apartheid, but I think the music is easier to access now. There are lots of Congolese immigrants who live here and there are plenty of Congolese parties and nightclubs in the city, so finding this music isn’t too hard anymore.
Did the apartheid policies extend to the availability of the records too? And has that now also changed? Could you give us an idea of what you’d find going record shopping in Cape Town these days?
Yes, there were strict government regulations which determined what music would be available. Honestly, I’m not sure how much this applied to Congolese music. In my experience you’ll most likely find records from South Africa, Malawi, and Zimbabwe if you go looking for African records. But I know that there are meant to be some fantastic record stores in Durban and Jo’burg where you might be able to find more variety.
If you want to see what record shopping in Cape Town is like, check out this 3D Tour!
You mentioned it took you a little time to get into the earlier TPOK stuff – how did your relationship with their music develop? Did you seek out specific records?
I think that I developed an appreciation for more a more subtle musical variety and repetition. Songs like ‘Nalingaka Yo Yo Te’, which has a very simple structure and essentially repeats for 10 minutes became my favourite.
One of the things with Franco & TPOK Jazz is that they didn’t really release records until very late in their history. I think that their first album was released in the late 70’s, before that they just released singles. I think that my favourite record is Se Dechainent, released in 1982. The song ‘Tantine’ has one my favourite dance sections.
That kind of clean guitar line is something that also seems to define your own debut record. Were you looking to reference TPOK directly or was it more subconscious than that?
There’s one occasion on the album where I reference it directly, at the end of ‘Jabu Ley’, but apart from that it’s probably less thought through and is probably the result of a natural inclination towards the intricacy of the interlocking guitars and their clean tone.
And I guess this is something that was made a lot easier for them with the advent of electric guitars and amps. I understand that Franco and the band were among the first to use them…
The use of the electric guitar was something that I think set Congolese Rumba apart from its Cuban counterpart and helped turn it into something distinctively Congolese.
It’s interesting you mention that they didn’t release many LPs, but more singles. Was this because they built their reputation as a live band?
I think that’s just how the record industry in the Congo (and pretty much the rest of the world) worked. People would buy singles, and they would be pumped out at a fairly frantic pace. I think that Franco recorded something close to 1,500 singles in his career.
That’s incredible. How do you begin to get to grips with a discography like that?
It’s pretty impossible. I think there are a lot of uncatalogued songs of his as well. I can’t remember if this is true, but I recall reading that when Franco died there was a period of national mourning. I think it was for four days and apparently there was enough of his recorded material that radio stations played only his songs for the entire period of mourning, without repeating any tracks.
He also spent some time in prison, is that right?
Yeah, I know that his relationship with Mobutu was quite complicated. I know of two occasions where he was either held for questioning, or actually imprisoned.
Was there much of a political strain to his music?
As far as I know, there was no explicit political strain to his music. The one occasion that I know of is meant to reference the public executions of Mobutu’s political opponents in a soccer stadium in Kinshasa. Franco, who I think might even have witnessed some of the executions, is meant to have released a song which talks about using witchcraft to kill ones enemies. The records were destroyed, and I think the he and the rest of his band were interrogated. He wasn’t actually imprisoned on this occasion. I think that was later, sometime in the late 70’s. It’s meant to be one of the main reasons that he relocated to Brussels in the 80’s.
Do you remember what the song was called?
No idea, and I think that finding copies might be difficult. I think that this record might be rare because so many copies of it were destroyed.
Going back to talking about the live set up, that’s obviously something that’s quite important to you too, right?
Yes, definitely. Whilst writing, I had always envisaged the music being performed, though I hadn’t really realised how much work this would require.
Are you pleased with how the album’s been received?
Thanks! Yes, I’m very happy with how it was received. It was strange to have it contextualized and made sense of, but I think that’s passed a bit.
I did want to ask one more thing about your record, and the way in which many of the tracks feels like specific sketches of a musical idea or influence (there’s something of the palm wine about ‘Lusaka by Night’, and shangaan on ‘Limpop’). Is that a fair assertion? The record feels wonderfully alive as a result.
Thanks. Yes, that’s a fair. Most of the songs have roots in specific genres, which are interpreted, ‘sketched’, and developed through a personal filter.
Finally, if you were to suggest a starting point for someone new to Franca and TPOK Jazz, what would it be and why?
Listen to ‘Mario’. It’s his biggest hit, distinctively Congolese, and very beautiful.
John Wizards’ self-titled debut John Wizards is out now on vinyl via Planet Mu, as is a 12″ of the single ‘Muizenberg’.