African music lovers rejoice! A new double live album on Wrasse Records, Zaire 74: The African Performers, features three superstars from the continent and three bands that are relatively unknown even to aficionados of world music. The superstars may not be household names to casual music fans, but Miriam Makeba, Tabu Ley Rochereau, and Franco are idolized across the globe.
The album’s backstory is almost as fascinating as the music and is detailed in a book that accompanies the release. Long story short, Hugh Masekela, the brilliant South African trumpeter, and his business partner organized a massive concert featuring international stars to take place in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire (it’s now the Democratic Republic of Congo), in conjunction with the famed boxing match, “the Rumble in the Jungle.”
The music was recorded using state of the art equipment, but languished for years. Some eventually was released in two separate films, but it was mostly footage of the American stars including James Brown and B.B. King that saw the light of day. The Africans were relegated to the cutting floor. That was a shame beyond imagination considering the term and genre “world music” didn’t even exist at the time. Though South African vocalist Makeba played regularly in the United States, Rochereau didn’t get over the ocean until ten years after the concert.
I was fortunate to have seen him in New Orleans back in the day. Sadly, Franco, who many would argue was one of the greatest African bandleaders, never made it to the States.
This album is one of the most outstanding live recordings of African music I have ever heard. The sound quality is impeccable and the musicianship is undeniably impressive. The fact that it was recorded over forty years ago in Africa gives me goose bumps.
The stars are on fire. Franco features a super tight band, a stop-on-a-dime horn section, rumba-influenced guitar parts, a lilting groove, and soaring vocals. Rochereau was one of the greatest singers the Congo, or the whole continent for that matter, ever produced. Even though he sings in his native tongue, the emotions are palpable. Same goes for Makeba.
The bands I was unfamiliar with are equally moving and revealing as to the depth of music at the concert. Abumba Masikini and the band that backs singer Abeti play two songs before the vocalist appears. They feature edgy rock guitar solos and tight arrangements. Abeti opens with a praise song for the dictator Mobutu who was just beginning his long reign over Congo while hopes were still high after independence from Belgium.
Orchestre Stukas is another band to add to the list of unsung groups that played soukous, the defining music of Congo, which took the world by storm in the years after this recording was made. The guitar work is incredible with lines weaving in and out creating a highly danceable, infectious groove.
This album defines an era that is long gone in Africa. But the music contained within is timeless and deserves to be heard by a wider audience and it needs to be in your collection.