"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

3.27.2009

on soul power

SXSW wore me out on documentary films for awhile. (Getting to see seven shows but only having to pay for three was a pretty great way to do it, too. Thanks, Steve Not the Lawyer, the global network of political scientists, and the ACLU of Texas!)

I've already mentioned some of the fantastic films I saw, but have yet to blog about one of my favorites, Soul Power. Soul Power is about Zaire 74, the concert festival staged in Kinshasa to accompany the Foreman-Ali fight promoted by Don King as the "Rumble in the Jungle." The entire event - concert and boxing match - was filmed on location in 1974, but copyright disputes over the film stock prevented any of it from making it to the big screen for over twenty years. (Long story short: the Liberian business interest that financed the festival after Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko reneged on his promise to pay for it fell apart right after the event.)

In 1996, we finally got to see some of that footage. Director Leon Gast put together the brilliant When We Were Kings. WWWK is one of my all-time favorite films. It focuses on the boxing match, which was delayed for six weeks when Foreman suffered an eye injury, and follows the growing interest of the Zairoise in Ali's chances as he trained in Kinshasa in the interim.

There are a few scenes from the music festival in WWWK, but the story line there is about the boxing match. Enter Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who was an editor on the WWWK project. He took the hours and hours of film that didn't make it into the first film and made Soul Power, an absolutely brilliant documentary about Zaire 74. Levy-Hinte tells the story of the planeload of black musicians from all over the world who came to Kinshasa for a three-night festival in the country's biggest stadium. James Brown, B.B. King, Mariam Makeba - everyone who was anyone was there.

Zaire 74 took place at the height of the Black Power movement and just before the African diaspora's dreams of a Pan-African paradise would begin to wane. It also took place in the midst of Mobutu's major nationalization program, Zairianization. Zairianization destroyed the country; it caused severe economic decline, destroyed the public health and education systems, and began the era of massive corruption that marked the rest of Mobutu's days in office.

Soul Power perfectly captures this era of optimism about Africa's future. The shots of Kinshasa show a pristine city with well-paved streets and functioning ... everything. It's surreal for those of us who know Kinshasa today; a shot of the Hotel Memling downtown in la Ville is almost unrecognizable. And the hope expressed by the musicians, many of whom had a sense that they were coming home, is just remarkable.

Levy-Hinte also shows enough scenes of the Kinoise who showed up to watch the spectacle that you get a really good sense of what has been lost. It's hard to overstate the impact of Zaire 74 on the country's population. The eyes of the world were on them, and no young person wanted to miss out. (For example, my taxi guy in Kinshasa, Jean, moved to Kinshasa from Lubumbashi at the age of seventeen for the purpose of seeing the fight and the music. He actually understood (kindof) why I needed to drive by the old stadium to take a picture.) It's beautiful and wonderful and you want to dance, but seeing the show through the lenses of the last thirty-five years makes the film in some ways a memorial to a place that no longer exists.

The best reason to see Soul Power, of course, is the music. The concert was recorded on sixteen tracks, and the quality of the songs is unbelievable. The musicians who went to Kinshasa that year put on the performances of a lifetime. Bill Withers played his guitar solo; B.B. King played the blues like you wouldn't believe. Sister Sledge - at the time, they were teenage girls - sings and dances in the Intercontinental ballroom. And Mariam Makeba turns in a great performance of the "Click Song" in a hairdo that makes Chantal Biya look like an amateur. (Look out also for her ex-husband Stokely Carmichael in a breakfast scene at which King is already downing a beer.) James Brown's set was two hours long, which makes sense considering that we learn in the film that his musical equipment weighed down the plane with an extra (I am not making this up) 35,000 pounds. It's just awesome, especially if you love soul.

Soul Power will be in theatrical release later this year, and a DVD release is also planned. It's definitely worth keeping an eye out for this one. I loved it.

Also, I totally want a Zaire 74 t-shirt. But not enough to pay $40 for it.

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