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05/30/2017
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Our Daily Bread 248: Zaire 74 ‘The African Artists’

Finally. The often overlooked, sidelined, and due in part to hustler/promoter Don King’s original court injection, the exciting homegrown African acts that performed as part of the legendary “rumble in the jungle” (Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman) jamboree can now be heard for the first time ever. Presented on two discs but also available as a triple vinyl set, the Wrasse label’s Zaire 74 compilation features complete performances from the leading lights of the local Zaire – renamed after much turmoil and war as the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the 90s – music scene and the world renowned South African émigré chanteuse Miriam Makeba.

Overshadowed by their American counterparts, especially number one soul brother James Brown, Zaire’s every bit as funky and dynamic artists were left on the cutting room floor for the most part in subsequent documentaries of the heavyweight championship in the country’s capital, Kinshasa. Notably the award-winning When We Were Kings, which is generous in its footage of Brown and his co-stars on stage including B.B. King, Bill Withers, The Pointer Sisters and The Fania Latin All Stars. In 2009 there was a chance of redemption in the form of the Soul Power documentary, which at least featured some of the Zairian talent and Makeba, yet was far from complete. Some of this exclusion is down to the checkered history of legal disputes. All of which are chronicled in the accompanying booklet that comes with this 34-track suite; brilliantly and informatively put together by the original dream team of Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine, the record label owners and producers who planned and recorded the whole affair and have now remastered it for this new compilation.

For an event meant to not only grandstand Ali’s titanic grudge-match with Foreman but also to celebrate Zaire and indeed the entire continent’s new found freedoms, now that for the most part Europe’s colonial powers had all but granted independence to their territories in Africa, it’s surprising to find that it has taken forty-odd years for this complete picture to emerge.

The bombast theater that followed Ali everywhere – encouraged and riled all the way by the late great showman – moved to Africa for a host of reasons. But indulged by Ali, Zaire’s leader of the time, President, formerly general, Mobutu hijacked the attention whenever he could to advance his own aims. Mobutu had himself brutally seized power from the democratically elected Patrice Lumumba – of which great hopes were predicted – in a military coup in 1965, so could do with some, even if it was a façade, positive media attention. Playing the part of antagonist and stubborn defender of African “authenticity” then, Mobutu called for a celebration of musical, cultural and traditional dress. History as it transpired, proved that he was in fact a plundering dictator who’d bled his people and country dry, but in ’74 the world’s media spotlight was angled on the former Belgian colony; giving it a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to promote a sense of self-belief and optimism.

For Masekela and Levine, the congruous musical partnership behind the US label Chisa Records and African music experts – the South African-born Masekela’s many travails across the continent included a “spiritual pilgrimage” that saw him meet such iconic figures as Fela Kuti and produce the highly influential Ghanaian seven-piece Hedzoleh Soundz -, this was an opportunity to further the course of the artists; hopefully attracting international acclaim and more lucrative record contracts for them. Acquiring the rights to stage a three-day extravaganza in September of ’74, the US-based partnership signed-up a weighty stellar line-up of acts from the Americas, but they also hired Zaire’s best-known bandleader and influential icon at the time, Franco (Francois Luambo to give him his full title), to consult as a “creative guide” on the African line-up. Franco himself appears naturally, leading the sunshine soul and off-kilter rhythmic T.P. O.K. Jazz band.

Stewart recorded proceedings in a mock-up studio, shipped over from the States, below the infamous 20th of May stadium in Kinshasa – named in tribute to the date of Mobutu’s bloody coup. And what he would capture was electric!

Between the flashes and blasts of screeching heralding horns, dynamite funk and R’n’B, much of the music was of a sweeter disposition; a counterpoint to the violence that would take part in the ring and to the extreme brutality meted out by the regime. The more blazing and up-tempo displays of Afro-funk and rock are delivered by the opening act. the slick Tabu Ley Rochereau And Afrisa; introduced with a soul revue instrumental shoe-shuffler of fanfare horns, jangly guitar and tight drum fills. A run-through of various moods and style changes follow from the man they called “the voice of lightness”, who it’s said, “stole the show” from his chief rival Franco. Skipping hi-hat action and rasping, swooning saxophone lullabies meet with The Meters deep funk basslines, and staccato rhythms, as Tabu and his ensemble work the crowd. The consummate showman receives many rounds of applause and thrives of the intense energy that pours from the 50,000 strong African audience, especially on what sounds like a local favourite, the grand finale, Annie; the crowd chanting back the words and sentiment.

That much-celebrated rival and Zaire 74 consultant, the mighty Franco, backed by local legends T.P. O.K. Jazz, takes up the lion’s share of the compilation’s second act with the complete eleven-track set list of dance band jumpers and off-kilter soul-jazz grooves.

Rising in status and influence, from the young streetwise “urchin” who built his own guitar and cultivated a signature repetitive attacking style, to revered singer and adopter of various musical genres from all over the world – Cuban rumba to Highlife – Franco’s enthusiasm and promotion of Mobutu’s “authenticity” campaign soured the star’s reputation for a while: Mobutu in kind, in exchange for Franco’s endorsement, smoothed the way for his growing business empire. To be fair, Franco became a vocal critic of the regime, penning a protest when Mobutu, making a political statement, hung a number of so-called “dissident” politicians.

Easing in and reminding us of the powerful line-up under his control that night in Zaire’s capital – a frontline of singers that included the talented Sam Mangwana, a seven-piece brass section and the gifted guitarist Simon ‘Simaro’ Lutumba – Franco’s band kick-off proceedings with a slinky soul-jazz, hot-stepping introduction and move congruously into a rhythmic change of direction on the proceeding cradled horns tropical Nzoto. Lolloping grooves, busy hi-hats and dazzled brass follow as a band at the peak of their abilities and showmanship take us on a Zairian journey through down tempo romantic balladry and sunshine pop.

The major star of Zaire 74: The African Artists, in an international sense anyway, South African soulstress totem of hope, Miriam Makeba brought a soothing hush of spiritual reflection to the stage. A universal message of optimism that chimed with the conscious celebration of a growing independence, Makeba’s sentiments are honorable enough, but can’t help but sound naïve in the context of Mobutu’s grandstanding and legacy.

The South African singer and leading advocate in the struggle against her homeland’s apartheid regime, was one of the continent’s most recognized talents having made a name for herself in the USA during the early 60s. Whether it was addressing the UN in ’63 and ‘64 or performing at JFK’s birthday party at Madison Square Gardens in ’62, Makeba became a major star and intentionally or not, became a Western figurehead for Africa. This soon changed after she married the divisive civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. A union too far it seemed for the US music industry as concerts were soon cancelled and she was given the cold-shoulder, leading in part to a move back to Africa, into the embrace of Guinea’s President Sékou Touré – an instigator of the “authenticity” campaign that Mobutu would later borrow. Unfortunately this new found home from home came with certain obligations, namely the requirement to perform when prompted to Touré’s guests and dignitaries. It was during this period that she appeared on the Zaire 74 bill.

In praise of Mobutu, certain dedications are made as Makeba delivers an almost venerated performance of swaddling, healing laments and prayer. Cooing, panting, trilling and soulfully fluctuating in an aria-style, Makeba yearns for unity and respect as she sings the South African anthem Amampondo, the sauntering swaying Umqhokozo, and breathy elevating ballad West Wind (written by her daughter Bongi; a song that would appear the following year on Makeba’s The Guinea Years album).

Sharing the stage with Makeba, the lesser known but in no way less important dynamic funk outfit Orchestre Stukas whip the audience up with an energetic set of local Zairian style rumba and western rock and funk. Lively to say the least, the Stukas were a sort of Zaire pop group, known by the French slang for the genre, as a “ye-ye” group. The wild gesticulations and dancing of front man Lita Bembo, learning a few tricks from James Brown, combined with the Hendrix-style teeth-playing guitar flamboyance of Samora Tediangaye brought them a reputation for showmanship in a scene filled with extroverts. Under these circumstances with this size of a local crowd and potential to reach the international masses, the Stukas took up the challenge and to all intents and purposes lit up the stage.

Playing on a different night, the Zairian rival to Makeba, Abeti Masikini was another initiate of the local rumba style, which she roughened up with the wailing rock guitar of her brother Abumba. Shifting between more traditional narration and sung exultations of peace, love and hope and a fluttering vocal display of chanting, panting and screaming, Abeti flows from Chanson to the tribal and gospel.

Escaping the worst of the violence that followed independence a decade or so before, Abeti was sent away to school in the safer environment of Léopoldville, where she could hone her vocal talents. Off the back of her success in winning a number of singing competitions Abeti eventually met music entrepreneur Gérard Akueson, who invited her to record in Togo. More or less coaching his star turn and taking her on a tour of Francophone West Africa, Akueson took a punt and organized a performance for her in Paris in 1973. Feted by, among others, the celebrated futuristic fashion designer Pierre Cardin, Abeti proved a popular attraction in Europe. Inevitably she was drawn into Mobutu’s sphere of influence on her return to Zaire; wheeled out to sing for dignitaries at the President’s insistence, which on one occasion led to her cancelling a US tour. Though still in the throes of optimism, Abeti dedicates a song of praise to Mobutu before launching into her varied set of styles.

Abeti’s Hendrix-extravagant inspired guitar virtuoso brother Abumba appears ahead of her in the line-up. A brief but dynamic two-song burst of shrieking wah-wah contortions and counterpoint bended-knee, more intimate, yearnings showcase the Afro-rock chop and skills of one of Zaire’s leading guitarists.

As a final curtain call and reminder of Mobutu’s “authenticity” mantra, the “massed ranks” of the atavistic Pembe Dance Troupe perform a tumbling, leaping Zairian ceremonial dance. Some will have seen footage of this on the Soul Power documentary of course; an animal-clothed ensemble of 300 people acrobatically springing across the stage in tribal communion. We get to hear it of course without the visuals, but the aural effect – the stage threatening to collapse under the weight and explosive excitement at any time – is still dramatic.

As fight fans will know, the titanic slugfest in Zaire was postponed for a month after George Foreman sustained an injury during training back in the US; moving the fight date to October. The three-day music festival though went ahead as planned. Unfortunately most of the exposure then and in the years that followed went to the “western stars”, with even the message of African unification and optimism lost in the excitement of the big fight – which let’s be fair was the main attraction, everything else a mere sideshow – and later by Mobutu’s own legacy.

Convoluted appearances, popping up briefly (if at all) in various documentaries, the African stars of Zaire have finally received the satisfying platform they craved. Thanks to Levine and Masekela’s patience, Zaire 74 collects those seldom-heard performances for the first time ever in this brilliant and most vibrant of releases; an album which acts both as a document and as an exciting musical experience.