The plan was to hold a music festival on the three nights leading up to the September 25th 1974 world heavyweight boxing championship bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire, presenting some of the biggest American stars along with some of the biggest African stars in the same stadium as the fight just when reporters, photographers, celebrities and jet-setters from around the world were converging there for the ballyhooed Rumble in the Jungle. It didn't quite work out that way. Foreman was injured in a training spar, necessitating a five-week postponement of the main event, but it was too late to reschedule the festival: James Brown, Etta James, B.B. King, the Spinners and the other visiting performers were practically on their way to Kinshasa already, and they had subsequent engagements to keep. So the show went on, but without the desired international audience and news coverage.
Fortunately, cameramen and recording engineers from Los Angeles and New York were there with their best equipment. Unfortunately, financial and legal complications kept the film and audiotape unseen and unheard for a very long time. Twelve years after the action, the Fania All-Stars' sizzling-hot set with Celia Cruz was released on a vinyl LP; in 1996 snippets of concert footage appeared in the Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings; and in 2009 came Soul Power!, a documentary on the music festival in Kinshasa. With so many acts, though, only James Brown got more than one number in the film, so while Soul Power! is abundantly entertaining, it leaves the audience wanting more, particularly of the African stars. This is what the new 2-CD/3-LP album Zaire 74 – The African Artists at long last delivers.
The definite article in the subtitle is misleading: Manu Dibango, Zaiko Langa Langa, and several other notable African artists who performed at the festival are, regrettably, not represented in this album. Maybe there were technical problems with their sets or maybe a second volume is coming later, but in any case there's plenty to enjoy here and now.
"Mobutu Praise Song"
All but one of the acts are Zairean, and that one is Miriam Makeba, the most famous African artist in the world at that time (and perhaps even now). She sings four songs, each in a different language, with her characteristic power and grace, at once regal and salt-of-the-earth. Three of these are gems from her repertoire and one is an ad-hoc tribute to Mobutu Sese-Seko, the President of Zaire. Today it may dismay Makeba's legion admirers that such a champion of human rights would honor such a vile despot, but we should consider that in 1974 every Zairean adult could remember the oppression and daily indignities of colonial rule, the terrible civil wars that followed independence in 1960, and the peace that settled on the devastated country when Mobutu took control in '65. Nine years later, although he was showing himself to be an autocrat who brooked no opposition, he still had the strong support of most of his compatriots and the respect of many international observers. Makeba, who grew up under South African apartheid and was now living in exile in Guinea, saw him as a hero, like her Guinean host, President Sékou Touré, whom she also praised in song, upholding a custom practiced throughout the world.
Among the many singers Makeba inspired was Abeti Masikini, who, though born in the Belgian Congo (Zaire), had begun her career in the West African cities Lomé and Abidjan and made her Kinshasa debut only three months before mounting the stadium stage. Like Makeba's repertoire, Abeti's is multilingual and stylistically varied, and like Makeba's voice, hers ranges from feisty growls to high coloratura. She's certainly an impressive 19-year-old, but why her act is given more time than any other in the album is perplexing, the more so when two numbers feature her brother's unremarkable singing and inapt Jimi Hendrix guitar imitation and two others are perfunctory Mobutu praise songs.
Orchestre Stukas also hails the Chief, but with an anomalous dirge and a good deal more verve at that. Hardly an orchestra, the seven Stukas Boys were popular with young Zaireans in the '70s for their frenetic shows marked by fleet-footed dancing and stage antics that warranted their name (dive-bombers indeed). Despite being unable to watch their moves, hearing this trim and tight band performing live is a kick.
("Celicia" on the CD)
Strongly influenced by James Brown, the Stukas must have been thrilled to be on the bill he headlined in their city. They weren't the only ones. James Brown's soul-funk was as deeply rooted in Africa as Celia Cruz's mambo, and the first Zairean musician to recognize this was Tabu Ley Rochereau in 1967, when he was already one of Zaire's most popular singers. The 20 minutes of his concert set that are included in Zaire 74 exhibit Tabu's firm grasp of Brown's dynamic rhythms and indefatigable groove. It sounds like he's challenging the Hardest-Working Man In Show Business, and it's exciting. However, Tabu was a skilled songwriter who absorbed, refined and blended a wide range of influences and delighted in melody, which he could sing beautifully, but here there are only brief reminders of these talents. Even with the constraints of a festival schedule and the exigencies of reaching everyone in a 70,000-seat stadium, surely he and his excellent band, Afrisa, performed some of their more tuneful and romantic songs that night. That they've been left out of the album is disappointing.
But of course an album like this comes with inherent limitations: neither format can contain three nights of music. The producers had to make choices. When they came to Franco and his Tout Puissant OK Jazz, the pre-eminent band of Congolese/Zairean music's belle epoque and one accustomed to playing four to five hours every night, they cut songs that normally rolled out over 10, 15 or 20 minutes down to snatches of two to three minutes. There are eleven of these pieces, some that begin at their beginning, some that start with the chorus, and others that leap directly into the sebene section (or, as the track list calls it, “Instrumental Dance Chant”), and they're all edited together so tightly that in effect they comprise a 28-minute suite that touches on many of the moods and modes of this towering artist and his truly all-powerful orchestra at their peak. Some fans of Franco will disdain this cutup collage, but others will appreciate the quality of the sound (far superior to any of the live Franco recordings previously released) and enjoy the romp through his early-'70s repertoire. Listeners who aren't familiar with this music will get a good introduction that might very well lead to lifelong love and devotion.
The album ends with the Pembe Dance Troupe, which is famous for its acrobatic dancing in fabulous raffia costumes and masks. Without the visual spectacle, the singing and drumming are almost pointless; these six minutes would have been better filled with another song or two by Makeba or Tabu.
One could also wish that more care had been given to the album's printed material. Four Lingala song titles are misspelled on the back cover and in the booklet, and Franco's two Kikongo songs are not only misnamed (“Kinsiona”, not “Kasai”; “Mambu Ma Miondo”, not “Mabuidi”) but also wildly misinterpreted in the song synopses. All in all, though, Zaire 74 – The African Artists is very welcome, no matter how late it is, but, like Soul Power!, it leaves the audience wanting more. - Ken Braun