x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Super Afro Soul

The fabled Zaire concert boasted a legendary line-up of performers, including James Brown, Miriam Makeba and BB King. A new film brings the concert to a new generation.

Miriam Makeba performed  at Zaire 74.
Miriam Makeba performed at Zaire 74.

"James Brown was outrageous. That's James Brown, man. If you don't like it, then go somewhere else!" Thirty-five years on and the concert promoter Stewart Levine - a bundle of effusive, New York energy - is still bowled over describing the godfather of soul's trip to Zaire. Whilst Brown was far too professional to ever give a bad concert, for one night in 1974, deep within Central Africa, everything came together like never before. Spurred on by the receptive Kinshasa crowd, and dressed in an all-in-one bodysuit, he shifted into another gear. With a full array of shimmies, trademark yelps and that inimitable voice, Brown was simply in a league of his own.

The singer headlined Zaire 74, a concert bringing together some of the world's greatest African-American and Afro-Latin stars for three nights of music. The brainchild of Levine and the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the organisers were motivated by a desire to promote African music to Westerners still largely ignorant of culture beyond their limited domestic horizons. And when the seemingly invincible American boxer George Foreman decided to the fight former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in the Zairean capital - the infamous Rumble in the Jungle - the two men immediately sought to organise a music festival around the match. "When I first heard about the fight it just came to me," Levine recalls. "I said, 'How about three days of music and fighting?' We had great energy and there was nobody around like there is today to say no. Everybody kept saying yes!"

For all the razzmatazz surrounding the Rumble in the Jungle, the music remains the stuff of legend, spoken about in hushed tones by aficionados the world over. James Brown aside, the concerts brought together a staggering wealth of talent, from the New York salseros The Fania All Stars, the Cuban diva Celia Cruz, the South African chanteuse Miriam Makeba, to the blues and soul legends The Spinners, BB King and Bill Withers. Yet media attention has consistently focused on the fight - and one of the great comebacks of all time by Ali. This mythic status of the sporting event resulted in 1996's Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, directed by Leon Gast. Only now, thanks to the release of Soul Power - a documentary about Zaire 74 - has the music started to receive the attention it deserves.

But why has it taken 35 years to make a film? The answer lies in the immediate aftermath of the concert when the production company hired to make the film went bankrupt, leaving post-production work incomplete and a decade-long dispute over rights that eventually led to David Sonenberg and Gast emerging with joint ownership of the archival film reels. While Gast was unable to get the music and fighting elements to work together in one film - deciding to focus on the Ali-Foreman clash in Kings - Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who was doing editorial work on the film, saw the amount of incredible unused footage being returned to storage and decided to make his own film focusing on the music.

"I felt that Soul Power was crying out to be brought to the public," the director and producer explains. "Particularly as time went on: James Brown passed away, as well as Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz and others. It really dawned on me that this was an end of an era and I wanted to give audiences the opportunity to see what it was like in its prime." Levy-Hinte immersed himself in the staggeringly high-quality footage - around 125 hours in total -primarily captured by the cinematographers Albert Maysles, Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating and Roderick Young.

The challenge was to make Soul Power a coherent piece of cinema. Levy-Hinte was conscious of the high benchmark set by Kings and didn't want his film to be a "lesser cousin". With this in mind, he decided to shun the retrospective model of documentary that relies on interviews, instead making a vérité-style film without a commentary to guide the viewer. This was a film where the footage, and the footage alone, would be the focus. Levine was keen that the film be made this way. "The film talks, man - let it talk," he stresses. "Let it be about what people play and say rather than what we say about it." Levy-Hinte agrees. "I really wanted to make the film distinct, both subject-wise and aesthetically, from When We Were Kings," he says. "In a way, in my mind I was channelling, 'What would they have done in 1975? What would have turned them on?'"

Ironically, Levy-Hinte was a small child when the Rumble in the Jungle took place and working on Kings, and subsequently Soul Power, was an educational "revelation". Yet when he talks about the camera work, he often uses the third person as if he'd been part of the film crew in Zaire, such is the profound effect that working with the footage has had on him. "I wanted to create a film that gave the feeling that I was living in the moment," he adds. "That I'm in the banquet hall when they're introducing the musicians; that I'm in the stadium as they put the stage together; that I'm there at night for the performances and backstage."

One criticism is that the vérité style doesn't have enough entry points for the casual viewer who may have an interest in the musicians but wants more contextual information. Other than the title card at the start of the film explaining the fight setting and the Liberian funding, the viewer has to wait until the end credits before the individual musicians are named. Levy-Hinte is humble enough to realise that this might not be to everyone's taste. "I tried to find the right balance," he explains. "I felt that to go further with the more informational tip would undermine the experiential." He wanted viewers to feel, like him, that they were part of the concert and not simply watching a movie about it. For the DVD release, a range of extras will address this issue.

What is in no doubt from the footage is the sense of camaraderie among the musicians and the sense of occasion they felt about a "return to the roots" trip to Africa. The film captures a fascinating juncture in both black America's history - still in the grip of the black- power movement - and Africa's first confident post-independence steps. As African-American musicians were beginning to get the domestic recognition they had long craved, Africa seemed like a place where anything was possible. This was a time before corrupt leaders cemented their grip on power and the continent was blighted by famine and widespread disease. While Brown was telling the crowd to be black and proud, posters around the concert stadium saluted President Mobutu's Zaire for being the place where black power had already been realised.

But despite the political undercurrents - and the musicians' general lack of knowledge about the less savoury aspects of Mobutu's regime - the music speaks loudest in Soul Power. Although international attention was firmly focused on the fight, Levine says that within Africa, interest was very different. "In Africa at that time, people were obsessed with these artists," he says. "Some people were into boxing, but I gotta tell you, more people were into music." The Latin music of Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco went down a storm because it had clear links with the Cuban-influenced rumba of local acts Tabu Ley Rochereau and Franco. Meanwhile, the snaking guitar of BB King was similar to the raw, desert blues of West Africa. These were performers at the very top of their game at the high point of funk and soul.

With such an array of talent, what are the stand-out performances for Levine and Levy-Hinte? Predictably, it is hard to pin them down to a specific artist. After the obligatory James Brown mention, Levine goes for Bill Withers. "With Withers there was something that was unbelievable," he says excitedly. "You're in the middle of Zaire, it's three in the morning in 1974 and here's this guy that the crowd don't know that well - he'd had just one or two hits - and he stunned the audience." Levy-Hinte, meanwhile, picks BB King. "There's something in the way he turns the music," he says, admiringly. "He freezes it; it's so engaging."

In the nearly four decades that have passed since Zaire 74, it is hard to think of a greater set of musicians ever sharing the same stage. There has certainly never been such an exciting nexus of musicianship, adventure and exoticism. The concert became such a mythical event because, in many ways, it was a non-event. Twenty-four hours before the fight had been scheduled to go ahead, Foreman got cut by his sparring partner in training and the fight had to be put back six weeks. The fight and concert, originally planned to run side by side, ended up being six weeks apart because it was too late to change the performers' arrangements.

And so the musicians descended on Kinshasa without the hook of the big fight to keep the media interested. Instead, Levine says, it was "like a big house party" where any notions of prima-donna status were left firmly in the States and the artists simply got on with performing one of the greatest concerts of all time. Exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure, Levine walked away at the end of it vowing to never attempt anything similar again. He instead turned his hand to producing ("Everything was easy after that," he says), enjoying a long and distinguished career with artists including Simply Red and Jamie Cullum. But those heady days in Kinshasa refuse to go away quietly. "We never dreamed the film would be coming out 35 years later," he says. "I'm glad that I'm still around to see it."