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'Zaire 74' legendary African music festival remembered

Relax News
Sunday 21 February 2010 01:00 GMT

When boxing promoters announced that Muhammad Ali was to fight George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, record producer Stewart Levine says a lightbulb went off in his head.

A close friend of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Levine saw immediately that the heavyweight contest represented an unprecedented opportunity to put Africa on the music map.

Levine's dream became a glorious reality over three days in 1974, when a music festival staged at the Kinshasa Stadium brought together a galaxy of black American stars and the cream of African music.

Yet while the Ali-Foreman fight - the "Rumble in the Jungle" - has become the stuff of legend, the musical sideshow which preceded it had been largely forgotten until the recent release last year of the documentary "Soul Power".

The film, released on DVD this month, makes use of previously unseen footage that had been gathering dust for decades, making only a brief appearance in the Oscar-winning 1996 documentary "When We Were Kings."

Levine freely admits that his goals in organizing the concert - raising awareness of African music in the United States - were largely unfulfilled.

"It didn't work at all," Levine chuckled in an interview with AFP. "In terms of raising awareness about African music, which is what we set out to do, it was a complete failure. Because hardly anybody saw it."

For anyone who was present in Kinshasa's Mai 20 Stadium however, the festival was an unforgettable experience, featuring mesmerizing performances from the likes of James Brown, Bill Withers and Miriam Makeba.

"When the fight was announced, literally the day it was announced, I saw it was set for Zaire and something just went off in my head," Levine recalled.

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"We would use the fight as an excuse to give attention to Africa and African-American music, which at that time was rhythm and blues.

"No one took me seriously but it set off this series of insane events which 35 years later became a film."

Planning for the event quickly gathered momentum. Most African-American stars of the time eagerly embraced the idea, Levine recalled.

"For some prima donnas it was difficult," he said. "But for everyone else it wasn't a difficult decision. The idea of going to Africa was very seductive to rhythm and blues artists."

The key to the concert's success was persuading "Godfather of Soul" James Brown to agree, said Levine.

"He was the most important guy because at that time although he was really really popular in America, he was literally a king in Africa, much more than he realized," Levine recalled. "He was the make or break guy for us."

Brown's participation was not without its headaches though.

When the singer and his entourage arrived to board the chartered jet ferrying the concert's performers from the US to Africa in a 20-hour journey via Europe, he turned up with 30,000 pounds of excess equipment.

"That was the most absurd thing and difficult," Levine said. "I still don't know how we got everything on board. The plane was severely overloaded."

By then Levine was grappling with the awful realization that the initial plans for the concert - to run in the days leading up to the Ali-Foreman fight - would have to be scrapped. A cut sustained by Foreman in training led to a month-long delay, meaning the concert and the bout would be staged weeks apart.

Levine successfully managed to conceal news of the fight's delay until take-off, knowing that had the news broken before the plane departed, many stars would never have agreed to leave the United States.

"I announced on the plane that it was basically a fool's mission," Levine said. "And everyone broke into song. You couldn't write it.

"I'd been thinking 'What are they gonna do? Are they going to throw me out somewhere over the Atlantic? But instead everyone was like 'That's okay man, we're singers.' And they celebrated by breaking out in song.

"It went on like that for about 20 hours."

The camaraderie between the artists during the mid-air jam session is one of the most striking sequences of "Soul Power." Levine says it is inconceivable that something similar could ever take place again.

"These days you have these absurd egos from guys who just stand on a stage and rap," he says. "But these were real artists and the camaraderie is absolutely true. What you see in the film is how it was."

The energy seen in the journey to Africa extended into the concert performances. According to Levine, the exotic setting inspired performers to reach heights they would rarely occupy again.

"I would say that James Brown never performed any better," he said. "Artists have good nights and they have great nights.

"And there was James Brown in the middle of the Congo at 1 am. It's a bit different from playing Cleveland. This concert had a drama to it that led to great performances from everybody."

It wasn't obvious at the time, but in hindsight Zaire 74 marked the beginning of the end of traditional soul and rhythm and blues from mainstream, Levine believes.

"This was the height as it turns out, the apex of rhythm and blues music in America," Levine says. "It never had a bigger moment than it did at that time. Shortly after that we had disco. And then we had rap."

Today however Levine is heartened by the fact that African music is readily accessible and respected in the United States.

"There's a certain irony in that today we have 'World Music' - that term didn't even exist in 1974 - and we have a lot of artists from Africa who have penetrated the United States, from Youssou Ndour to Salif Keita.

"The audiences are probably more prepped to listen to this stuff now than they would have been if they'd seen this concert at the time."

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