Ever since I saw the wonderful 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, about the legendary 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in the Congo (formerly Zaire), I've been curious about the prefight concert, which took place over three nights in Kinshasa. The fight itself ended up delayed by five weeks after Foreman sustained a cut near his eye while sparring, but the music went on as planned on the original dates, September 22 through 24, drawing a crowd of 50,000. Billed as Zaire 74, the Kinshasa event mixed marquee names from American soul, blues, and R&B—including James Brown, B.B. King, the Spinners, Bill Withers, and the Crusaders—and Latin-music heavies Celia Cruz & the Fania All-Stars with a top-flight roster of Congolese talent. The original film touched lightly on the concerts, but another great movie, 2009's Soul Power, gave the music its own showcase. Unfortunately, the film focused almost exclusively on the visiting artists, with scant mention of the locals.
The performances were filmed and recorded on a state-of-the-art mobile studio, but most of the tapes sat in storage for decades thanks to a dispute with the fight's notorious promoter, Don King. Now, the organizers of the music festival—South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and producer Stewart Levine—have finally gained control of the music, and on Friday a stunning new double CD called Zaire 74: the African Performers (Wrasse) will at long last let us hear it all. The set features beautifully recorded, highly charged, and sublimely elegant performances by Franco & O.K. Jazz, Orchestre Stukas, Abeti Masikini, and Tabu Ley Rochereau & Afrisa, as well as a set from South African great Miriam Makeba. It's mind-boggling that this material has been buried all these years. The discs are packaged in a lovely hardbound book with liner-note essays by Masekela, Levine, and British music journalist Robin Denselow. I wish there were more still images from the film footage—Makeba is the only artist pictured in performance—but I'm not complaining.
It was hard to choose any single tune, especially when what were arguably two of the three greatest bandleaders in the history of Congolese music played such dazzling sets at these concerts. But as much as I love Rochereau, I have to go with my all-time Congolese favorite, Franco, for today's 12 O'Clock Track. Below you can hear "Koni Ya Bonganga"—but honestly, this whole set is unfuckwithable, and you deserve to hear it all. The wait was worth it.