Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Before he died at 51 in 1989, probably of AIDS, the titanic Congolese guitarist-vocalist-bandleader Franco had recorded some 150 albums, just one of which was ever released by a U.S. company of any stature. Due to catalogue litigation that caused one label to cancel plans for a box set, his records have been even harder to find since then. So The Rough Guide to Franco (World Music Network) is a treasure. Compiled by Franco's biographer, Graeme Ewen, the single CD spans 30 years of recording, from the catchy Latin tinge of the three-minute Merengue through the gravely danceable Attention Na SIDA ("Beware of AIDS"). As a tour of the ripplingly grooveful pan-African soukous style, which Franco ruled, it's incomparable, and nowhere near as samey as cynics might expect. You don't have to know Lingala to hear how much tracks featuring soaring vocals and lilting guitars can differ. Only those who listen to James Brown for the lyrics have an excuse for ignoring this.

A Zairean who made a musical life for himself in East Africa, Samba Mapangala is a minor figure compared to Franco. You could say that Ujumbe (Stern's/Earthworks)--his third album released Stateside, and his first in a decade--represents no progress. Or you could observe that his sweet, relaxed flow, considerably less stressful than the soukous it translates into Swahili, is miraculously consistent. A pretty beauty, unimposing and full of pleasure.

Anyone conscious in 1962 will know all the songs on Girl Group Greats (Rhino). Anyone conscious will know some of them. But no one will know of a place where legends from the superstar Supremes to the anonymous Jaynetts sound better together. Easily the finest girl-group collection ever released.

Playboy, June 2001

May 2001 July 2001