Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Franco & Rochereau [extended]

  • Tabu Ley [Shanachie, 1984] B+
  • Omona Wapi [Shanachie, 1985] A+
  • Babeti Soukous [RealWorld, 1989] B+
  • Man from Kinshasa [Shanachie, 1991] A-
  • Exil-Ley [Bibiche, 1993] Neither
  • Muzina [Rounder, 1994] Neither
  • Africa Worldwide: 35th Anniversary Album [Rounder, 1996] A-
  • The Very Best of the Rumba Giant of Zaire [Manteca, 2000] A+
  • Rough Guide to Franco [World Music Network, 2001] A
  • The Voice of Lightness [Sterns Africa, 2007] A+
  • African Classics [Sheer/Cantos, 2008] A-
  • Francophonic [Sterns Africa, 2008] A+
  • Francophonic Vol. 2 [Sterns Africa, 2009] A+
  • The Voice of Lightness Vol. 2: Congo Classics 1977-1993 [Sterns Africa, 2010] A

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Tabu Ley Rochereau: Tabu Ley [Shanachie, 1984]
Comprising six recent full-length dance tracks by the bandleader whose clarion baritone has made him the biggest singer in Zaire for twenty-five years, this is a well-designed compilation documenting Africa's dominant pop style. Most of the cuts have real tunes, with French lyrics accessible to a wide range of high school graduates, and two feature his female protegee M'bilia Bel. But Rochereau is a showbiz pro because he always goes for what he knows works, and outsiders may well find his up-up-up propulsion steady-state if not a little wearing. B+

Omona Wapi [Shanachie, 1985]
Individually, they're the great rivals and grand old men of Zairean "rumba" and all that's followed--very roughly (and I mean very), think of them as James Brown and Frank Sinatra. Frankly fat Franco is a guitar-wielding rhythm-master with a sweet, high voice. Rochereau (a/k/a Tabu Ley) a supernal tenor who favors cummerbunds. They've released well over two hundred LPs between them, but fine as the eight or ten I've managed to hear are, not one comes close to this Paris-recorded collaboration (their third, or sixth, or some such number)--one of the few African records in which the singing outshines the rhythms, and the rhythms are gorgeous. Its effortless propulsion and shameless beauty are so unmistakable that two acquaintances, neither a professional, have asked the title after hearing it over the telephone. That's O-M-O-N-A W-A-P-I. A+

Tabu Ley Rochereau: Babeti Soukous [RealWorld, 1989]
More showbiz if not Vegas than his great rival/collaborator Franco, soukous's surviving coinventor is a cornball so seigneurial that I've walked out on him twice, and at first I found this hectically eclectic live-in-the-studio best-of hard to listen to. But when I gave it a chance its constituent parts snuck up on me--the procession of dance beats and guitar styles, the female vocal cameos, even the Smokey-styled/stolen ballad. Take it as the Zairean equivalent of Sunny Adé's Juju Music--an unguided tour through a long, deep pop tradition. B+

Tabu Ley Rochereau: Man from Kinshasa [Shanachie, 1991]
The king placates soukous fashion instead of following it, and having kicked off with an electrokickdrum that's never so forward again, his third U.S.-release variety show eschews total speed trip. Catchy tunes, plangent pace changes, Cuban/Ethiopian horns, musette accordion--and enough rippling guitar to keep them coming back for more. A-

Rochereau et l'Orchestre Afrisa: Exil-Ley [Bibiche, 1993] Neither

Seigneur Tabu Ley Rochereau: Muzina [Rounder, 1994] Neither

Tabu Ley Rochereau: Africa Worldwide: 35th Anniversary Album [Rounder, 1996]
Except when Franco showed him how on Omona Wapi, Tabu Ley never conquered his schlock habit Stateside. Even the 1989 best-of he recut for RealWorld sounded like cummerbunds and leisure suits. But as Kinshasa transformed itself from hellhole to charnel house, Afropop's smarmiest godfather withdrew not just to Paris but L.A. Then, with a quick new guitarist and dulcet vocal acolytes helping him exploit a nostalgia it would be cruel to deny, he rerecorded a magnificent dozen of the thousand or so songs he churned out when Zaire was young, and in the great tradition of classic Afropop, their airy grace still projects an illusion of possibility. This old hero no longer plans to conquer the world. He's just grateful he can remember how it felt to be looking ahead. A-

Franco: The Very Best of the Rumba Giant of Zaire [Manteca, 2000]
See: Franco de Mi Amor. A+

Franco: Rough Guide to Franco [World Music Network, 2001]
See: Franco de Mi Amor. A

Tabu Ley Rochereau: The Voice of Lightness [Sterns Africa, 2007]
The master of Congolese song is the rare singer whose sound signifies like a great jazz horn player's--hear, for instance, how his velvety tenor lifts his duets with his Diana Ross-like consort Mbilia Bel on her accompanying compilation. And that was toward the end of the long peak that begins very near the beginning of this sumptuous 29-track double. Dividing neatly between his African Fiesta National and Afrisa International band, the name switch that more or less marked his realization that first the double-sided 45 and then the LP were means to the authenticité of long, instrumentally expansive recordings, so it's more songful on the 18-track 1961-1969 disc and more grooveful on the 11-track 1969-1977. But even toward the end, with "soukous" becoming a byword, the lilt of classic rumba gently prevails. A+

Franco: African Classics [Sheer/Cantos, 2008]
Guitarist-vocalist-bandleader-force majeure Luambo Franco recorded all the time. But in the dire tradition of both dictatorship and imperialism, the catalogue of the greatest African musician of the 20th century comprises many dozens of albums and many hundreds of songs whose availability wanes and waxes and then wanes again. So who knows how long this lovely and riveting mess of a double-CD will be around? It shares a mere four duplications with the Manteca and Rough Guide best-ofs you should buy first. It lists who's singing (14 African idols overall, Franco usually included) and playing guitar (on 16 out of 23 songs, not just the big man but bespectacled hitmaker Simaro). Its main negative is its incomprehensibly unchronological track order. Its great prize is all 17 minutes of the deeply gorgeous "Très Impoli," which does nothing but insult an unnamed somebody right down to, as biographer Graeme Ewens puts it, his "smelly armpits and dirty socks." A-

Franco: Francophonic [Sterns Africa, 2008]
As monumental as, and meatier than, Stern's Rochereau retrospective The Voice of Lightness, this overview of the big man's first three decades plays less smoothly because smooth was never the idea--he was John to Rochereau's Paul. The two of them ruled Kinshasa because they were bandleaders on a par with James Brown: shrewd businessmen, charismatic bosses and unrelenting musical conceptualizers. But though Franco helped create the onwards-and-upwards rumba lift that turned their city into the musical capital of pan-Africa, he remained rough and local. His lyrics eschewed romance, his singing favored a declarative midrange, his famed guitar was loud and plangent rather than nimbly lyrical. Where compiler Ken Braun gives us a Rochereau who sheds idiosyncrasy as he defines a genre and masters a personal style, his Franco is always thinking. Even on the later disc, he's masterminding a transcendent commercial and then mourning his younger brother, teasing out a buildup on one song and delivering nonstop climax on the next. Rhythms and tempos shift: here a cha-cha, there a torch song, there some eerie 3/4 time. But he never stints on melody. You may need Braun's notes to get your mind around songs your body has already internalized. Or you may decide to just enjoy how it sounds. A+

Franco: Francophonic Vol. 2 [Sterns Africa, 2009]
An overview of the rumba master's final decade: two CDs, 148 minutes, and just 13 tracks, of which I'd previously heard three. After not too long, however, "Kimpa kisangameni," anchored by Decca Mpudi's bewitching bass line, and "Bina na ngai na respect," with Ya Ntesa Dalienst threading his near-tenor through a web of soukous tricks, feel almost as familiar as the famous not to mention super "Mario," presented here in an alternate version that will have special meaning for all you Lingala speakers out there. Don't think these expansive tracks are all unimpeded up-up-up, either--the first 18 minutes and two songs of Disc 2 soar slow and majestic on expressiveness alone (well, melody, sure). Franco's forthright baritone and broad guitar are constants. But for all his skills as a player, singer, and writer, what made him not just Congo's but Africa's greatest musician was his bandleading. And unlike his counterpart James Brown, to whom he condescended for no good reason, he did his damnedest to hire underlings who were even better at singing and writing than he was. A+

Tabu Ley Rochereau: The Voice of Lightness Vol. 2: Congo Classics 1977-1993 [Sterns Africa, 2010]
With Mobutu squeezing every fantasy of affluence out of Congolese life as he strove to consolidate his power, soukous's greatest vocalist felt the pinch as recording studios, pressing plants, and his own label broke down. And though his velvet tenor remained strong and flexible as he turned 40 and then 50, his spirit faltered. As usual, Ken Braun makes the most of a discographical briar patch, most of it originally released as dance-length two-sided 45s. There's nothing approaching a clinker on these two CDs--mourning a teacher or going disco, Tabu Ley remains an ineradicable rumba original, a lover of melody and leader of men. But only at the start of disc two does the music enter the transcendant realm where the first volume lives: with "Kabasele in Memoriam" and "Lisanga Ya Banganga," both long known to American soukous fans from Franco & Rochereau's Omona Wapi, whose other two tracks woudld flow right in as well. Conclusion: although Rochereau has lived a longer and happier life, his rival and coequal probably lived an edgier and deeper one. A