Few expected the over-the-hill Muhammad Ali (age 32) to prevail over George Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974. And the musical sideshow that preceded it, an ambitious three-day international festival called Zaire ’74, seemed likewise headed for a brutal beatdown in the hours and days leading up to showtime.
Conceived by record producer Stewart Levine and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the promo event for the Ali-Foreman fight consisted of some 31 acts, half of which came from abroad. The former Manhattan School of Music roommates envisioned the festival as a way to raise African music’s profile in the United States; a goal Levine later deemed “a complete failure” because “hardly anybody saw it.”
It wasn’t until the 2008 release of Soul Power, director Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte’s documentary about Zaire ’74, that audiences could finally appreciate the sublime spectacle of American rhythm and blues greats James Brown, B.B. King and the Spinners; salsa queen Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars; and powerful West African combos like Franco’s TPOK Jazz and Tabu Ley Rochereau’s Afrisa all sharing the same stage.
Soul Power consisted of leftover film shot by Albert Maysles (who’d made Gimme Shelter about the 1969 Altamont disaster) and other top-notch cinematographers for what became When We Were Kings. The excellent 1996 documentary about the fight was directed by Leon Gast and edited by Kusama-Hinte. Cruz and the Fania salseros — who, incidentally, were incredible that night — would eventually spin off their own full-length Gast-directed document, Celia Cruz and the Fania Allstars in Africa.
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Funded by Liberian investors who would hold Gast’s footage hostage for years, Zaire ’74 took place over September 22 to 24 in Kinshasa’s renovated 80,000-seat Stade du 20 Mai (May 20 Stadium). Scheduled to promote and precede the Rumble on September 25, the festival went on despite the fight’s postponement to October 29 after George Foreman was cut above his right eye during a sparring match, requiring 11 stitches.
On the eve of most of the musicians’ departure for Zaire, Levine managed to convince sportscaster Howard Cosell to delay relating news of the postponement for a day, in case the musicians decided to bail. The fact that many of their managers were observing Rosh Hashanah apparently helped his cause as well. Levine later told the Los Angeles Times that “everyone broke into song” when he finally made the announcement somewhere over the Atlantic.
The musicians’ departure from New York was made even more precarious by the unexpected addition of some 32,000 pounds of equipment belonging to headliner James Brown, who’d scheduled other dates in Africa. The overloaded plane skimmed trees after refueling in Madrid and proceeding on its 20-hour flight.
In Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), meanwhile, the production crew was dealing with an electrical system running at 220 volts rather than America’s standard 110. The United States Agency for International Development came to the rescue (your tax dollars at work!) with some slightly used 110-volt generators previously donated to the country.
Consciousnesses were raised quickly in Kinshasa as the relatively wealthy American musicians roamed the city’s streets, mingling with children and fellow musicians. Military dictator Mobutu Sese Soco was still enforcing his campaign for African “authenticity” and a state of permanent revolution (with disastrous economic results). His propaganda machine included ubiquitous signs reading, “Black power is sought everywhere in the world. But it is realized here in Zaire.”
He had an unqiue fellow traveler in Muhammad Ali, a courageous martyr to his own beliefs. Ali pops up throughout Soul Power to deliver his uniquely poetic views on how much black lives matter in Seventies America. “This fight is for the freedom, justice, equality of the black man in America so that I may take my title and my fame and go out and uplift little black people in the ghettos,” he says. “Black people is catching hell. Black people who entertainers won’t speak for…. I have to lead the way. God has made me bigger than all entertainers in the world…. Now it’s my job to whoop this man, get my title, so I can use it to uplift the black man in America.”
James Brown, who also knew the score, breaks it down in the film with his elegantly concise observation that, “You can’t get liberated broke.” Due to the price of tickets, only 8,000 attended each of the fest’s first two nights. Mobutu “convinced” the promoters to give away tickets to the final night, when 80,000 Africans were regaled by bare-chested, bell-bottomed James Brown, at the height of his funk, declaring “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Ali, of course, rope-a-doped Foreman into submission before knocking him out in eighth round.