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Syran Mbenza & Ensemble Rumba Kongo
Immortal Franco: Africa's Unrivaled Guitar Legend
World Music Network/Riverboat Records (www.worldmusic.net)

"Heritage Ya Luambo," the leadoff track of this shining tribute album, is a musical succession of African names, both people and places, impacted or influenced by Congolese guitar great Franco, who passed away in 1989. But lovely as it sounds, it's only lip service for the hour of Franco covers that follow. Franco was there from the Cuban-leaning beginnings of Congolese rumba, blessed with the licks, compositional skills and vision that were only part of the success story of his band OK Jazz. One of the finest ensembles in African music, OK Jazz seemingly had almost every Congolese singer or player of note within their ranks at some point. Some of those same names are in expectedly fine form on Immortal Franco, a session put together by guitarist Syran Mbenza, lately a member of rumba revival band Kekele. Vocalist Wuta Mayi, also from Kekele and once a featured singer in OK Jazz, is also on hand.

Franco's output was vast and some of his songs were epic in length, so a single CD is only going to go so far in summarizing just what a towering figure he was in music and in African culture as a whole. But the songs, which cover (in sometimes compacted form) rumba's acoustic infancy and later sebene-stretching pieces, are as solid a selection as you could ask for to fill one disc. Particular standouts include the unplugged, accordion-laced "Mbanda Nasali Nini?," Mayi's percolating '80s composition "Zozo Visi" and the transforming of the Miriam Makeba-popularized ballad "Liwa Ya Wech" into "Liwa Ya Franco," though everything here will please lovers of the Congolese sound. While there's no topping the real thing as far as Franco's music goes (for proof, look no further than the recent first volume of the retrospective released by Sterns Africa), Mbenza and his associates here salute the man in fabulous fashion. - Tom Orr

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