The concert was held in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Congo) back in 1974. It was intended to coincide with the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” that eventually found its way onto the big screen in Leon Gast’s superb 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. Foreman was injured and the fight was delayed, but the concert went ahead anyway. If you share something of my personal musical inclinations—shit, if you share an interest in great popular music at all—you were probably watching Kings and thinking to yourself how all this Ali and Foreman footage and all this commentary from Norman Mailer and Spike Lee is totally awesome and everything, but where the hell is James Brown, y’all? Jeffrey Levy-Hinte must have been thinking the same thing. He found the footage of that concert and the build-up to it and assembled some dazzling fragments into a parade of musical bliss called Soul Power.
The line-up was conceived, as a celebration of both African and African-American music—and it should be stressed that when we say African-American we’re referring to the Americas, not just to our immediate neighbours to the south. So Miriam Makeba works the same stage as Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars. Manu Dibango sweats it out before the same ecstatic crowd as B.B. King and Bill Withers. And did I mention James Brown? Sure, the integrity of the event’s mandate toward unity within the African diaspora may be somewhat tainted by its having been financed under the auspices of Liberian investors and Zaire’s totalitarian, kleptocratic dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, or by the less-than-honourable interests of money-gobbling fight promoter Don King, but the integrity of the music itself is beyond question. Its overwhelming energy, combined with not uncomplicated messages of personal and political empowerment, its genre-dissolving funk soup and soulful primacy that transcends the disparate lifestyles of those in both the affluent and third world, collude to form a resounding statement about the state of global culture in the mid-70s, which remains a watershed moment in popular music and black power. Compressed as it necessarily is, Soul Power has a few issues to nitpick over, but none of them have to do with the excitement generated by the musical performances.
Celia Cruz shakes on a plane
Some fascinating early scenes convey a sense of just how difficult it is to organize an event of this magnitude in a developing country, yet the party starts before the musicians even arrive. A terrific sequence finds a bunch of them jamming on the plane during the flight over, with Cruz making a groove just by knocking a plastic cup on the upper luggage rack. Another sequence showcases the excellent local bands setting up their equipment on Kinshasa downtown corners for the best street performances you’ve never seen. Ali turns up a lot, of course, hugging Brown on the tarmac, dumping buckets of sugar into his coffee, and riffing gloriously and vainly on notions of homecoming, cultural repression and personal freedom for the cameras, while Don King makes a grand appearance wearing his electro-shocked ’fro and one ugly motherfucking jacket. There’s a lot of talk about the meaning of the event and the importance of development and financial reform by numerous spokesmen, though it finally Brown cuts to the chase with wry comments like “You can’t get liberated broke.”
Cruz with Fania All Stars band leader Johnny Pacheco
Brown and the JBs
Brown’s climatic performance, so athletic and frenetic, with that big-ass fuzzy moustache and jumpsuit with an acronym for Godfather of Soul etched across the sexiest male potbelly in showbiz history, with an electrifying JBs—featuring ace saxophonist Maceo Parker—backing him up, is magnificent, and ‘Cold Sweat’ a major highlight of the film. Yet the acts leading up to his appearance are often just as sublime. Bill Withers’ supplies a moving, stripped-down rendition of ‘Hope She’ll Be Happier.’ Makeba, sporting a weirdly elegant fauxhawk, performs ‘The Click Song.’ And there’s something positively cruel about our only song from Cruz being a knockout ‘Quimbara’ (as though Cruz knew any other way to do it). To really give a more penetrating sense of just how diverse and dynamic those three days of music really were, Soul Power simply needs a lot more soul music, more than its 93 minute running time can handle. So I’m crossing my fingers in the hopes that Mongrel will cough up a DVD with lots and lots of extra performances. (Hint, hint.) In the meantime, you don’t want to miss any chance you might have at enjoying Soul Power on the big screen, however truncated its musical bits may be.