July 10, 2009
And behind every legendary boxing match, there is...an almost-forgotten music festival? The storied Rumble in the Jungle between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in 1974 in what was then Zaire (now People’s Democratic Republic of the Congo) was indeed accompanied by a three-day music festival fittingly known as Zaire ‘74. Held in Kinshasa, the promoters of the festival intended it to be a celebration and merging of American and African musical styles and performers, years before David Byrne and Paul Simon led the revolution of white boy quirkiness mingling with tribal rhythms. This duality is reflected in the key promoters themselves: South African musician Hugh Masekela (who in his long storied career has played with jazz ensembles, co-created Broadway musicals and yes, toured with Simon) and American record producer Stewart Levine who has manned the controls for everyone from Boy George to Sly Stone.
Masekela and Levine recruited some heavy hitters–James Brown, BB King, Bill Withers and Celia Cruz among them– as performers and in the wake of the social upheaval and the civil rights movement of the 1960s in America, the musicians looked at this not only as a chance to expand their fan base but reconnect on a personal level with a part of their culture and history. Masekela and Levine smartly recognized the importance of capturing the music and the social context for posterity and hired a documentary crew to shoot the festival as well as conduct interviews and portraits of everyday life in Kinshasa. And then, thanks to legal problems brought on by the financial troubles of the Liberian investment group who bankrolled the festival, the footage remained locked away for over 20 years. (In a side note, seriously, what was up with musical festivals in the '70s? Between this and the similar troubles that plagued George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, it’s a wonder we have documentation at all!).
The footage finally came to light in 1996 when the rights were settled in order to allow completion on When We Were Kings, an Oscar-winning documentary that examined the Rumble and used the music as a supporting character. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, the editor on Kings, made it his personal mission to see that the rhythm behind the bout was brought into the light and over a decade later, his efforts finally paid off. Soul Power marks his first time in the director’s seat. With Brown as the "lead" in the film and in his own way, as magnetic a personality as Ali, this should make an ideal pairing with Rumble on the small screen after it has made its way through theaters. (Brett Beach/BOP)