Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Soul Power: The Music of Zaire ’74

Just about everything that could go wrong logistically for the Zaire ’74 concert event, did go wrong, but the musicians still brought their A-game. Originally conceived to coincide with the “Rumble in the Jungle” title fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, the show had to go on, even when the bout was postponed due to injury. Drawing from the same extensive footage that ultimately produced Leon Gast’s Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s concert documentary Soul Power (trailer here), finally reaches American theater screens this Friday, nearly thirty-five years after the historic musical extravaganza.

The Zaire ’74 concert was organized by record producer Stewart Levine and his friend and partner, South African pop-jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela (who strangely makes only furtive appearances in Soul). According to Masekela’s memoir Still Grazing, there were some decidedly diva-like moments with many of the artists, but Levy-Hinte clearly chose scenes which accentuate the positive. Many musicians, like Bill Withers, regarded the trip to Zaire as a spiritual and musical pilgrimage, or a homecoming to the native-land they had never known.

In general, Gast’s film concentrates on the boxers and Levy-Hinte’s film focuses on the musicians, but Ali still finds his way into Soul, since the musicians often sought him out. However, James Brown emerges as the film’s dominant figure, through the force of his personality in candid interview segments and his songs, like “Soul Power” and “Say it Loud,” which perfectly express the concert’s pan-Afro-Diasporic concept.

There is some stirring music recorded in Soul, with many of the highlights coming from unexpected sources. Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars brought their hot blend of salsa to the Kinshasa stadium for passionate performances of “Quimbara” and “Ponte Duro,” featuring smoking solos from Johnny Pacheco on flute and Ray Barretto on congas. The Crusaders (formerly known as the Jazz Crusaders) also turn in a surprisingly swinging rendition of “Put It Where You Want It,” showcasing Joe Sample’s pleasingly funky keyboard work. Yet perhaps the highlight comes from Zairian soukous innovator Tabu Ley Rochereau with the infectiously rhythmic “Seli-Ja.”

There were a few disappointments during Zaire ‘74, including the cancelation of Cameroonian jazz musician Manu Dibango’s set, but at least the Makossa Man is heard in Soul leading a group of children pied piper-like with his soprano sax. At times though, one feels there were missed opportunities for more cross-cultural exchanges during the concert. While B.B. King and James Brown were incapable of giving lackluster performances (and the Godfather of Soul seems truly inspired during his closing set), surely their fans have heard them play “The Thrill is Gone” and “Cold Sweat” on numerous occasions. Had they played with artists like Dibango or Rochereau on-stage, the results might have been magical.

Of course, Levy-Hinte had to work with the footage he had and the concert producers were probably just happy to hold the show together. From the three chaotic nights of music that rocked Kinshasa, the performances that made Soul’s cut are quite rousing, and were effectively captured by a team of cinematographers that included renowned documentarian Albert Maysles. Conceptually, the Zaire ’74 show was comparable to the 1971 Soul to Soul concert in Ghana (which is available on a deluxe DVD/CD set), but the Kinshasa concert arguably had a bigger line-up and more energized performances. Fans of soul music with an appreciation of Latin, jazz, blues, and African music will have plenty to snap their fingers to in Soul Power. It opens in New York this Friday (7/10) at the Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Theaters.