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Music Review: O.K. Jazz Orchestra – Roots of OK Jazz

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Just as the fax machine played an important role in the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., the gramophone served as a voting machine in the Congo. From the liner notes, “ allowed the expression of one’s opinion at any time, the disc being used as ballot paper and the political programs announcing freedom for all.”

The story of O.K. Jazz is intertwined with the stories of the Congolese independence and the orchestra’s leader, “Grand Maitre” Lokanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Makiadi, commonly known simply as Franco. Using his music, Franco became a rebel of the airwaves and dance halls. According to the liner notes (15 pages in English and French), Franco “…relentlessly and lucidly depicted the shortcomings of his society while ruling the dance floors of a whole continent for three generations…”. I cannot remember Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan having reputations for ruling dance floors. This guy, Franco, was apparently the superstar of the early ’50s in the Congo. The notes continue that his work has been “…learned by heart — words, melodies, vocal harmonies, horn arrangements and guitar solos — by millions of people.”

Just in time for the 50th anniversary of Democratic Republic of the Congo’s independence from Belgian colonial rule, Roots of O.K. Jazz will be released on August 10, 2010 by Crammed Discs. Originally released on Crammed in 1993, this beautiful 20-song collection is re-released as part of the “Congo Classics” series on Crammed that began with Roots of Rumba Rock in 2006. Roots of O.K. Jazz was recorded in 1955, the year before the official formation of O.K. Jazz which later became known as TPOK Jazz. The band played at a bar whose proprietor was a man named Oscar Kashama. Quite likely, the band’s name originated there.

All 20 tracks on Roots of O.K. Jazz share a common backdrop of Cuban influenced congolaise rumba — lots of percussion including various types of drums and castanets. Track three, “Bolole Ya Mwasi Oyo (Nganga)” is one of Franco’s first with an electric guitar and, with the exception of track seven, the songs all remain faithful to their Congolese origins and their various influences (French and Belgian Congo). A notable exception is a guitar riff in “Houlala Mopanzi (Roitelet)” borrowed from Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”.

An interesting irony in this absorbing music from 1950s Africa is found in the contrast of the upbeat rhythms and the bluesy lyrics. The first track, “La Rumba O.K. (Franco)” is a good example. The upbeat rumba musical theme supports these translated lyrics: “I can’t beg, it’s so sad/If you don’t have money people hate you/It’s too sad/I’ve been in jail for four days/It’s so sad.” What could B.B.King do with lyrics like that?! Many of these songs have only one or two lines of lyric which are repeated throughout. Other examples of the blues-oriented lyrics can be seen in the translated song titles such as: “You’re Finished,” “Stop Messing Around,” “They Scorn Me Because of You.” Hmmm… some of those sound like today’s country and western songs. Talk about crossover influences!

The production quality of this CD is spectacular, especially considering that most of these songs originated from 78 rpm records. Kudos to the production team at Crammed. Would I buy Roots of O.K. Jazz? Yes! It is an important piece of music history that helps establish a foundation for other genres as well as stands alone as a Congo classic.

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