Friday, December 04, 2009

66 Ways to Franco

It was the kind of thing that you found yourself doing in the middle of the night, musing on an idle question born of two of your concerns: musical obsession and software anthropology. Counting the ways to Franco was an excursion into the realm of metadata, matters of syntax, and a contemplation of the hive mind of the web. The initial insomniac impulse was to create a playlist; your search, however, found a surprising 38 variants of the name in your library and you couldn't locate the song that had triggered your nocturnal foraging.

You remembered that at the beginning of the year you only had a couple of his albums in your collection but the music blogs of this world wide web had sprang to life and you'd steadily filled the gaps while reading them. In this golden age of music distribution, all one needs is a vague memory and an internet connection to fulfill one's aural titillation. Let's see, a cursory glance shows that the mp3 collection now stands at 25,494 songs, 186 GB, or 99 days of non-stop music - probably a third of which was acquired over the past year. Now you do still spend a lot on your musical vices, but you can imagine that it is highly unlikely that $8,500 (at iTunes or Amazon pricing) would have left your insubstantial wallet during this Great Recession. No, your collection grew by osmosis. Moving on...

Your count was akin to last year's discussion about the bewildering number of ways people mangle song and artist names. That led to the sight of those Top 100 ways to write Guns N' Roses – Knockin' on Heaven's Door. What a strange glimpse of the musical Tower of Babel we now have. Take a lexical curio like Guns N' Roses (call it typographical eccentricity), add a few apostrophes and you'll realize that the children of Mr Special Character and Mrs Structured Data are blessed ones. This is the minutiae that software people - and that unwashed sub-clan, the database denizens, have to deal with on a regular basis. Whole businesses have been founded on making sense of such messy data. Information retrieval is the general term of art, and metadata, well, metadata is the data about data. It's one of the hard problems in your line of work.

So what do we have then? Through a set of historical accidents over the past decade - notably the piecemeal standardization of ID tags in the mp3 file format, the mp3 file format itself, the rapid adoption of internet led by the web, improvements in storage technologies, the development of new portable music players and the decentralized mass digitization and distribution of music, we can behold the glorious results of a democratic exercise of mass data entry. During this time, millions of ordinary people took to their computers and ripped their cd collections. Millions more downloaded and shared this great social bounty. True, the more prudent laggards waited until there was commercial affirmation and legally sanctioned avenues for their digital music. Throughout, however, this mountain of music had to be labeled.

The inevitable curators came along fairly early on in this process - the online databases, GraceNote and then Freedb, to help automate things and identify the cd once you loaded it on the computer. Their altruism however didn't stem the tide of data entry (someone after all had to have entered it once and we all know how that goes). Offerings like MusicBrainz have emerged in recent years as repositories of high quality music metadata, ostensibly on a mission to bring accuracy and fingerprinting to digital music. The commercial services too now loom large as major distribution points, but they too license their listings from some of these databases, and it shows: errors everywhere. More puzzling is that the record companies haven't been of much help, they too don't pay attention to the details of the names of the artists they supposedly promote, nor indeed the titles of the songs. They, like iTunes and Amazon stores, aren't perfect at information hygiene. You see typos and plain wrong labeling of music. You don't have to take the word of an opinioniated metadata curmudgeon, the proof is in the existence of a vibrant ecosystem of tag editing software, free and even commercial. Imagine that, people pay for a product to help them label their music.

Given that even the big boys don't label their music accurately, it has been a true free-for-all and that's not even taking into account the trend of the past couple of years of digitizing (and sharing) all the lost vinyl. I'll only note that the amount of African music that is being rediscovered is frankly startling. The labour of love of those who find and clean dusty grooves, scan album covers, digitize and share their musical memories is a true surplus for society.

It turns out that all these musical curators and aggregators have only been partially successful. It really is a problem with the human factor. When you have humans doing data entry you'll have errors. When you have on order of millions doing data entry, you'll have large numbers of errors. These glitches appeal to me, truth be told. People label things to remember them and the patterns they use are worthy artifacts. The variants, I'll suggest, are emblematic of both folk memory and the mass creation of semi-structured data. If I could, I'd write an ode to the mp3 tag. In the meantime, I set about to count the ways to Franco. was my weapon of choice - a music recommendation system with attitude. For one, they have been gathering data from all and sundry for years now - they call it audio scrobbling. They gather data about what people listen to, crunch away, and make contextual recommendations. They deal with huge amounts of data and the attendant complexity. One early strategy to work around the inadequacies of ID tags in mp3s was to simply escape from their confines and allow users to tag artists, songs and albums on the website and watch the free-form folksonomie emerge. Web-savvy as they are they organized these musical objects each with its url and wiki page. People like to discuss songs, albums and artists. Few algorithms can handle the notion that Orchestra Baobab recorded two albums in 1975 under the Orchestre Bawobab moniker. You need a human intervention to account for this kind of peculiarity. And so they did. It's a simple application of collective wisdom: watch what users do and organize around it. They can even offer radio stations based on tags. At a certain point also, they tried a fingerprinting technique that would process their users' libraries to allow them to normalize the metadata associated with a piece of music. Taking this further, they can simply ask and allow people to correct spellings or suggest alternatives for artists that performed under different incarnations. Once a critical mass is reached you can automatically apply this feedback to tend to this garden of metadata. This is the business of web scale identifiers.


And so we come to Franco. Not the fascist Spanish dictator, whose despicable legacy is still paradoxically a touchstone for some American neocons. No. For most Africans, Franco is all you need to say to signify great, pulsing guitar-driven music, rumba, soukous, social commentary and old time good fun. All these are the elements of Franco. It's all the same good, liquid music and great memories of excursions on the dancefloor, a long career spanning four decades. It's been twenty years since François Luambo Makiadi passed away, time enough to count.

And so I counted:

There are at least 66 ways to get to Franco.

I must admit looking at the list gave me pause. How do people remember a musician? How do we remember a piece of music? Only about 9,000 users of last fm seem to listen to Franco and yet here we find world class variety. He appears in 66 different guises to the world if you exclude the 3 obvious mistaggings and misspellings. The labelers in a pool of 1.5 million Guns N' Roses listeners could only mangle that band's spelling 56 ways. What was so special about Franco, I wondered, as I looked at the list? The obvious answer is that much of his music is not available commercially in digital form. Instead, a lot of his listeners are typing up the records and cassettes.

Capitalization concerns surface immediately. Some people like ALL CAPS, others are lower case freaks. That is par for the course in a world where search engines basically ignore case. (Sidenote: looking at the top search trends of the year, it appears that users use lower case in search engines, few bother these days with "Britney Spears" when "britney spears" will do. In this age of mobile phones, it seems that the shift key is being used less). Sidenote: we won't digress onto Camel Case discussions at this stage.

Most people think of Franco as synonymous with the band he founded: OK Jazz. But how do people deal with the abbreviation? How does one spell OK? Is it rather "Ok" or "O.K."? Opinions are varied. The OK Jazz band was so named because they began as the house band in the OK Bar in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). It should be simple then: Franco & OK Jazz say - assuming you go with no dots.

Matter of punctuation however open up a can of worms; we stray onto typographical concerns, with pronounced eccentricity in the choice of separators. For delimiters, we see dots, semi-colons, slashes, commas and hyphens.

People have different conventions for conjunctions: it's a case of ampersands (&) for the many and fully spelled out for the few.

We have the language issue, the band was named in French so we'd expect "et", but some labelers are English-speakers hence we get a few instances of "and", "with" and "featuring" showing up. Incidentally the folks in the forums at MusicBrainz will regale you with tales about the epic wars over the conventions for dealing with the word "featuring". Briefly, some people spell it out, others contract to "feat" or "feat." - with the punctuation, or even further to "ft.". Suffice to say that it was much like the egg-cracking debate in Gulliver's Travels.

Lest you think that punctuation doesn't matter, let me interject the following anecdote. Tony! Toni! Toné! were named as such in their debut album, "Who?". In later albums, they were called Tony Toni Toné - with the exclamation points removed. Which is the more accurate name for the band I ask? Could you spin a story from the missing exclamation points? Well I'll engage in mindless speculation on this typographical mystery - stay with me. It's obvious: they changed record label and lost the rights to their name (much like The Jackson 5 had to become The Jacksons when they left Motown). They were shrewd in their negotiations and the price they paid was the removal of the exclamation points. The transformation was from 3 ejaculations (those 3 exclamation marks) to a sedate sentence, perhaps indicating a newfound maturity. Truth be told, the music was better without the exclamation histrionics yet it clearly is the same band. For what it's worth, Last fm and Amazon all normalize the name without the exclamation point. Anyway, I won't pursue this tall tale further. Back to Franco and OK Jazz...

The OK Jazz band was an orchestra with a shifting cast - in Congo and much of Africa after the second world war, there was a great flowering of such orchestras as proving grounds and incubators - so you have some renderings going with Orchestre OK Jazz. Again native language comes into play, for the English it's orchestra instead of the French orchestre.

Then there are the nicknames and honorifics. Simply put, Africans love titles. OK Jazz acquired the "Tout Puissant" prefix (almighty, literally all powerful). Franco acquired the appellation, "Grand Maître" (Grandmaster). Add in the grammatical concerns and you expand the choices; is it "le tout puissant" or "son tout puissant", ergo is it "the almighty" or "his almighty"? Le Grand Maître Franco & le T.P.O.K. Jazz perhaps? Franco Luambo Makiadi & OK Jazz? Sometimes also, Franco's full name is spelled out as if to underlie the vastness of his catalog. And when doing this, the name order varies.

At its most extravagant you'd get something like Le Grand Maitre Franco Luambo Makiadi & Le Tout Puissant Orchestre OK Jazz.

Even then, would you contract to TPOK Jazz? Or T.P. OK Jazz? Or T.P. O.K. Jazz? The plot thickens.

With such a long career, there was inevitably a shifting of focus; on some albums it was the band that was the lead, on others it was Franco who took the spotlight, and at other times other members took center stage (Sam Mangwana, Vicky, Taby Ley Rochereau and so forth). The names varied accordingly. It was all Franco, and it was all good, if you don't mind my saying. Trust me, pick almost anything he recorded and you'll be a happy camper.

But to get to my point. The music I'd been looking for at the midnight hour was the following album:

Franco et le T.P. OK Jazz sing for Mobutu

Over his career, there were a number of occasions where Franco had to pay obeisance to his patron, that murderous dictatorial rogue, Mobutu, kleptocrat without equal. The music on those few albums were not the best that he produced in his illustrious career. True, the tracks were danceable but they weren't ecstatic as usual. Some have even detected elements of irony in some of the songs - subversive dog-whistles that undercut the dictator's purpose and propaganda. I imagine some Africanist historian writing the definitive study of this phenomenon, perhaps something titled Musical Resistance in Dictatorial Times in 20th Century Congo: Rumba as Social Subversion. Interestingly enough, as you can see, the word Franco doesn't appear on the billing of the album, it is just plain old Luambo Makiadi. Twenty five years after its release, I couldn't find Candidat Na Biso Mobutu when I searched my iTunes and Winamp libraries for Franco's music, and it figures: he didn't need the dictator's bloodstains attached to his musical name. Franco was a smart man, he knew all about branding. He is sorely missed.

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AfricaLiving said...

So did you find the album yet?

xcroc said...

Lovely post on Franco and metadata!
I don't know if you have already read this, but if not, it is worth your look:
Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos by Gary Stewart. He weaves the music and the politics in and out.

Koranteng said...

@xcroc: Yet another book to add to the pile of books to read. At this rate I'll never catch up.

@AfricaLiving: I did find the album and it was as I remembered it, strangely restrained. There's definitely an element of resistance in the music.

rr said...

Superb post, as ever, which I've had "mark as unread" in the reader for far too long. I checked - I only have seven variants of the Franco theme. Such a beginner :-)

Kunguni said...

Dude dude dude! You approach the seemingly mundane with such finesse & precision. A discussion of the mans name/title fills a whole page without getting into his music or band history much. Thanks for the post. I read somewhere that albums specifically for local consumption had Luambo Makiadi while others had Franco on them.
Luambo artiste na biso.

jke said...

K, I am one of those 9.000 users on, and I indeed had a lot of problems with the naming conventions for all of these fine Franco tunes (and I guess I am also very German when it comes to these details, so thx for pointing this out).

Another issue is the "category".

As for me, I've meanwhile given up and categorized everything from Africa as "African". Highlife, Soukous, Benga...even traditional whitchcraft music recorded by David Fanshaw during the 1960s ==> "African". Why? Because my Nokia mobile (= mp3 player) only identifies tracks by their mp3 tag.

I know one day I will burn for this sin... :-)

Koranteng said...

Don't get me started on the category issue. I too have defaulted to using African as my catch-all genre for the manifold musics of the continent. (Sidenote: I still have some remnants labeled as afrobeat, but I'll get to those later).

It is surprising isn't it: popular music is something that has so many niches and yet here we are, confined to a limited syntax. I like the solution: tags.

jke said...

Indeed. But only if there's a way to save these tags (of course chosen from a list of predefined tags so no further typos) within the music file so that they will never be lost. I don't know what David Weinberger would think about this though as everyone sure has his/her own tags to music.

I'd be happy to chose from a limited array of tags only and/or some music anthropologists come up with the *correct* :-) way to tag all of these Franco tunes (I had chosen "Franco Luambo Makiadi & TP OK Jazz" back when I tagged my collection using mp3tag).

Jake said...

I'm another'r and while the naming conventions for Franco are confusing and ambiguous we can count ourselves lucky that his music is even available. The Pandora database, a rival, has very little "African music" (or any other non-western genres for that matter). I'm told this is because they don't have a classification system for non western music--this seems like a feeble excuse.

A pandora user had this to say: "Right now I'm listending to a pandora radio station I named African Beat Radio - and what is playing is pop Portuguese music (yuck) because Pandora loggers tell me this track features: sophisticated harmonies, catchy hooks, portuguese lyrics, r&b roots, and brazilian influences - none of which would describe African music. But really, none of that is appropriate for someone requesting African music. The only connection is that the Portuguese were colonialists in Africa for a time."

When I tried Pandora, the only Franco that it could find was a Mexican pop balladeer. Better 66 Franco's than zero.

Koronya Mwambia said...

Categories ! Wow that is a thorny issue. If the tech do not allow I understand but I find it in bad taste to categorize music, food, art and others as African. When not talking meta geography i.e African deserts categorizing as African gives the false illusion of a small homogenous or closely interrelated characteristics. My main pain is of course when I visit a blog with thousands of recordings from all over the continent and the most specific tag is 'African'. I may like Congolese Soukuoss but not South African rap having those as one is beyond criminal. In iTunes i save songs to most specific genre and then use 'smart' playlists that automatically pull these together into larger groups of related genres - like having Mali, Guinea Burkina together but excluding Juju . Anyways thanks for the post great read as always.

Tim said...

What a great article, combining search engine philosophy and one of the giants of Congolese music.

Interesting that you touch on the language issue, too. I run a discography of East African music on 45rpm singles (yes, it's a niche but nobody else is doing it) and constantly trawl for new records to add to the listings. A simple typing mistake, putting Kenia rather than Kenya, into a Google search unearthed a batch of new information from German speakers that I had never guessed was there.

Incidentally, a new site has just started that will appeal to Francophiles:

It features rips of albums I have never seen or heard before, so it might cut the number of routes to Franco a little bit.

My website, which doesn't include sound samples, but gives a healthy indication of the wealth of musical activity in East Africa is at

If anyone owns Kenyan or Tanzanian reocrds that aren't on it, I would be delighted to hear from them!

JC Brochard said...

As a music lover and librarian, I really enjoyed this post.
I've just commented it here :