The most well-known and visible musician to have answered such a call, was the famous guitarist François Luambo Makiadi, commonly known more simply as ’Franco’. His career thrived copiously thanks to his active and public participation as a musician closely, almost intimately, related to Mobutu and its policies regarding authenticité and l’animation politique. To Franco is in fact credited the longest list of songs regarding directly Mobutu, or the political life of Zaire in general. Were it not enough, “[…] it was common for Franco to warm up audiences before Mobutu’s speeches, improvising lyrics about the high price of food or the abuses of people in position of power.’’ This apparent form of direct criticism however, was used to serve the opposite function that political criticism it is usually intended for, and indeed, before commencing his speech, “[…] Mobutu would comment on what Franco had just sung, making jokes on the subject in passing and effectively defusing any real criticism of the regime or its policies.’’Such a form of criticism, obviously only by Franco, was not then simply allowed, but if kept under control, it actually served the regime for the always ongoing construction of an illusion of consensus and legitimacy.
Interpreted and performed by Franco is the song “Republique du Zaire”, composed by Munsi Jean ‘Kwamy’ in occasion of the decision to change the name of the nation into Zaire, actively calling “[…] upon the population to support Mobutu in all that he is doing […]’’ Written by Franco, and performed with his TP O.K. Jazz band, is the song “Belela Authenticité Nakati Ya Congress”, intended to express the full support to the new philosophy of authenticité. In this composition, the musician “[…] urges a sense of personal belonging to the country in an attempt to foster national identity […] The song […] promotes the idea that one’s personal identity is defined by his or her country (Zaire), family (MPR) and father (Mobutu).”Back in 1975 Franco even produced a whole album recorded and printed with the sole intention to celebrate and honour the tenth anniversary of the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution (MPR).
But what makes then Franco something more than a mere puppet whose strings are carefully pickedand pulled by Mobutu? As a constant in the narrative here presented to the reader, it is Franco ambivalent capacity to be at the same time the main bard at the court of the criminal king, and the author of at least two very much impactful songs indeed highly remembered up to this date for their indirect but still blatant criticism of Mobutu’s regime crimes and corruption. It is the case of the songs “Luvumbu Ndoki” and “Lettre à Mr. Le Directeur Général”. In the first song, based itself on a traditional song of Congolese folklore, obviously indirectly by means of a metaphor related to Congolese mythology, Franco dared to address the dramatic events occurred during what has been named the Pentecost hangings (or Pentecost Plot), in which Mobutu’s have had hanged five political dissidents in a show of brutal cruelty. At that time, the reaction to this performance was such impactful that appears that Franco even ended up detained by Mobutu for questioning. The second song instead directly refers to the corruption and incompetence afflicting Zaire’s bureaucratic elites.
It is not an easy task to understand if being the only singer of criticism has somewhat connotations of resistance or dissidence and thus bravery, when such an indirect criticism revealed itself to be very well suited to the regime’s purposes, even more so when we have already suggested that maybe silence is the real act of resistance in a regime that made of music a powerful and complicit tool.
Bob W. White even reports of allegations regarding Franco serving as an informant of Mobutu’s notorious secret service. White, Rumba Rules, 79.
White, Rumba Rules, 80.
Mukuna, “A brief history of popular music in DRC”.
Picked as in guitar picking.
Given that the subject here at hand is, after all, music, I hope the reader would forgive me this word pun made using the King Crimson album title ‘at the court of the crimson king’.