10 Dec 2009

Soul Power

1974 Zaire, Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine set out to0 organize a music festival that would encapsulate the hugely popular sound of African soul and pop music by combining the most renowned African American artists with those from their homeland. The festival would co-inside with Don King’s title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, more commonly remembered as The Rumble in the Jungle. It was seen by many as a great cultural showcase to the world off what Africa had to offer.

Jeffrey Levy-Hintes documentary is made up of unused footage of the festival, taken during the shooting of the 1997 Oscar winning documentary When We Were Kings, which showcased Ali’s famous victory over Foreman. The reason for all this spare footage was down to the fact that outside of Africa, the fight was the main event, however in Zaire the three day music festival more than matched the title bout for headlines, such was the importance of this celebration of African music. Featuring some of the biggest artists of the time, the festival’s line-up boasted such ‘heavy weights’ as BB King, The Detroit Spinners and the Godfather of soul, James Brown. This was something completely new to Zaire, seen by many as the Woodstock of the African continent and a chance for Africa to boast its rich musical heritage.

Soul Power tells the story of the festival and all involved in creating it, from Don King and the promoters all the way down to the crew who built the stage. It combines a well made mix of energetic live performances and interviews, the most notable when James Brown enters a room with Ali and King. It’s a spectacle so monumental that even the big haired promoter seems unusually dumb struck. It’s the atmosphere or ‘vibe’ of the whole event though that really shines through in Soul Power. Even the difficult ‘set-up’ portrayed in the documentary seem like a celebration of this monumental event. It’s all wonderfully captured with vivacious live performances, especially the headline performance of James Brown. However the shots of the crowd, who dance with such passion, are certainly the highlight of this film. They exuberate so much joy for what they’re seeing, that it appears to stream from there smiles out of the screen, their overwhelming delight at just being there is evident.

What we have here though is not just an hour and a half of music clips; it’s an important part of African history captured on film. There is the constant undercurrent of President Mobutu’s regime, a time of corruption and misrule, which makes Soul Power a riveting glimpse of seventies Africa and the attitudes of those who lived there.

Patrick Gamble


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