One of the more unsung music festivals of the era, Zaire 74 was the brainchild of African music legend Hugh Masekela and producer Stewart Levine. Riding high on the Black Power movement — and a global sporting phenomenon known as the Rumble in the Jungle — this three-day music festival brought James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, the Spinners, Sister Sledge and about 80,000 screaming admirers to Kinshasa.
It did more than just that, though. It paired these world-famous acts with some of the African continent's best: ABETI, Abumba Masekeni, Franco and T.P.O.K. Jazz Orchestra, Miriam Makeba, Orchestre Stukas, Pembe Dance Troupe and Tabu Ley Rochereau & Afrisa. Nothing like it had ever been done.
The event was both a near-catastrophe and the stuff of rockumentary legend. Leon Gast's extraordinary footage added flavour to his 1996 film When We Were Kings. Later, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte's excellent 2008 film Soul Power captured the pandemonium in greater detail.
The festival was meant to precede a Muhammad Ali/George Foreman heavyweight fight in September 1974. But Foreman was injured during training and the match had to be delayed.
On top of that, there were the usual financial histrionics. Mobutu Sese Seko, nine years into his 32-year reign as president/military dictator, was looking for a PR score but refused to bankroll the show. After much arm-twisting and breath-holding, the concert came off on schedule.
Finally, we have a collection of the African performances. The quality of these recordings leaves a bit to be desired; they're not flawed so much as a bit thin, in the way a lot of live sets recorded during the decade sound.
But that's hardly the point. To hear these musicians at this moment in African — and African-American — history is more than worth the price of admission. This isn't just another record-shelf addition for ethnomusicologists.
Franco and his band are absolutely hypnotic on tracks like "Koni Ya Binganga" and "Lala Nzala." Miriam Makeba was surely in her prime on "West Wind," the album's only English-language track.
Foreman would recover from his injury of course, and go on to fight a remarkable bout with Ali at the end of October. Ali regained the heavyweight championship by scoring a knockout at 2:58 of the eighth round, utilizing his infamous "rope-a-dope" technique.
It's recognized as one of the sport's greatest fights. Now, with the release of Zaire 74 – The African Performers, the rest of the story can be told.