Note on The Grand Master Franco Luambo

November 18, 2007

It’s a known fact that Franco recorded various praise songs for Mobutu, openly supported Mobutu’s presidential campaigns and toured to promote the Authenticity policy. 

What may be little known is that those efforts paid off in:

- the 1972 acquisition of the club “Chez Engels” which became the famous “Un, Deux, Trois” via a complicated transaction involving the political downfall of the former owner (or manager), Mobutu’s wife and probably the Presidency itself.
- Franco’s 1972 nomination as president of UMUZA, the national musicians’ union created (or officially encouraged) by the Mobutu regime.
- the acquisition of Mazadis, the largest record pressing plant in the country, as part of the Zaireanisation policy. 

As the president of UMUZA:

- he installed the unions’ headquarters on his own “Un, Deux, Trois” propriety.
- he had, because of a May 1973 decree, the exclusive power to grant travel authorizations to musicians wishing to travel abroad. He did use that power against competition. For instance in 1975 Trio Majesti announced a December gig at Olympia in Paris. In May, they got a 12 months suspension from UMUZA for trading Zaires into foreign currency on the black market to finance their travel (weirdly enough, no judicial prosecution ever occurred even if that action was definitely illegal). The ban got reversed in August but the December date still passed without the band getting its travel authorization.
- in 1973, he banned the creation (or rather the registration) of new bands and recording companies, claiming 300 bands were already too much for a sane and sustainable music industry.
- in an April 1975, at a meeting of UMUZA members, he called for more “revolutionary” recordings (so more praise songs), demanded more self-censorship and announced a new travel restriction: band having gigs abroad will have to show that they had enough currency to support themselves and that currency would have to be acquired through the Central Bank (at disadvantageous rates) and the central bank requested a permit by.. UMUZA. 

As the owner of Mazadis:

- he granted himself, his band and his production company preferential treatment by having different prices and by slowly or badly processing orders from competitors.
- he didn’t do much to keep the operation running (and eventually saw the former owners get 60% of their shares back in 1975) which led to a nationwide shortage of records. “Kiosks everywhere display shelves either empty or filled only with old creations” said a (government) newspaper in 1974.
- he failed to use his political clout to get permits and authorizations necessary to buy foreign currency to purchase equipment, spare parts and raw materials. Of course, one could say that foreign currency was hard to obtain for anyone but as the manager of the other recording plant said: “of course, there was no shortage of foreign exchange. All kinds of luxury goods were available in the stores, but no one penny for raw materials and spare parts.” I believe Franco did obtain permits but for different purposes.

The shortages, lack of investment, travel bans, mismanagement of author rights payments, corruption, favoritism all contributed to the demise of the zairean music industry and Franco, arguably the greatest congolese musician of all-time, played a big role in those events. Let us not forget that.

That said, I still believe this great song has a great political subtext:
 

All the information was taken from Gary Steward’s excellent book: rumba on the river.rumba on the river

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4 Responses to “Note on The Grand Master Franco Luambo”

  1. omodudu Says:

    How long did it take for the musin industry to recover afterwards? was there a lasting impact of his actions? It is rare to see an artist stifle other artist work in such obvious. Are these allegations or facts. Very curious.

  2. aflakete Says:

    the congolese music industry never really recovered. after trying desperate things such as melting old records to press new ones, the pressing plants all closed by the late 70′s. artists soon had to record abroad and producers had to manufacture their records abroad. and soon the general economy got so fucked up that the zairean records market lost its economic importance for zairean musicians. many would tell you that because artists had to either cater to foreign audiences or get all their revenue from club gig, the music got worse.

    the allegations, as far as i know are facts.

    i don’t think it’s rare for artists to do dirty tricks. what is rare is artists being given so much power.
    and Franco certainly didn’t mind that power.


  3. [...] blogs about the Congolese musician, Franco Luambo: “It’s a known fact that Franco recorded various praise songs for Mobutu, openly supported [...]

  4. Fred Says:

    I view this as just another sad manifestation of the all-embracing, all-corrupting nature of Mobuto’s rule, to which people in all walks of life succumbed, feeling they had no option. Clearly, there’s a difference between surviving a dictatorship and profiting from it, but I get the impression that Franco – like many others – actually believed in the vision at first. He may have been bought, but he also bought in. I’d like to know at what point(s) successful opportunists like him began to have moral doubts.


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