COMPILATION REVIEW: DOMINIC VALVONA



Hugh Masekela   ‘’66-‘76’   Wrasse Records,  20th April 2018

Masekela as the exile. Masekela as the trumpet maestro. Masekela as the bandleader. Masekela as the activist. Masekela as the colonial revisionist. Masekela as the angry young man. These are just some of the many faces of the South African titan of jazz and African musical fusions Hugh Masekela that can be found inside the latest essential collection of the late great polymaths’ back durable catalogue, ’66-’76. Put together especially by Masekela and his good friend, producer and collaborator on a number of projects together, Stewart Levine, just before he passed away in January of 2018, this three disc spanning collection features key tracks from many of his most iconic and experimental albums (two of which are included in their entirety). What makes this especially appealing to collectors and fans alike, is that many of these albums were never officially released in the UK and Europe before. Progressing in the chronological order they were recorded, we follow Masekela’s journey not just musically but politically across his most formative decade and his collaborative partnership with Levine.

Originally crossing paths in New York in 1961, a year after Masekela first arrived in the States after narrowly avoiding arrest in his native South Africa for breaking the apartheid system draconian ‘pass laws’, Levine, a Bronx native, met the aspiring horn player as he searched for a decent break on the American east coast jazz scene. They both enrolled that same year into the Manhattan School of Music, sharing a room together. In the years to come this hotbed, an incubator for some of the greatest jazz musicians of the last five decades, would turn out countless additions to Masekela’s changing lineup of recording sessions and live backing groups. But during those initial years, Levine and Masekela would, after graduating, split and go their separate ways, pursuing different pathways: Masekela, emulating the jazz doyens that inspired him to move across the Atlantic, and Levine, choosing production.

Years later, in ’66, and sharing not only a bond of friendship but love of Africana and American music, the pair reunited to setup a production company, the intention being to make records that combined jazz, the dancing Township sounds of South Africa and the grooves and sounds of Rhythm and Blues. This partnership, fortunately funded by seed money from some generous benefactor, quickly moved its operation to the West Coast and L.A. in the fall of that same year. Christened Chisa Records, the inaugural album, The Emancipation Of Hugh Masekela (which starts off this whole collection) featured the hybrid signature sound that the company and Masekela himself would be celebrated for. And as the title makes clear, would not shy away from black consciousness issues and struggles: not only in his native homeland, but also in his exiled home of America.





Dressed up as a smiling Abraham Lincoln on the cover, this quite withheld and effortlessly played album features the ‘working group’ of Manhattan School luminaries of musicians that backed him at club spots in the infamous Watts and on Sunset Strip: Harry Bellefonte’s (who will crop up again in this story, and have much to do with Masekela through the civil rights movement) travelling bass player at the time, John Cartwright, joins congas legend Big Black, drummer Chuck Carter and pianist Charlie Smalls, whose unique and open style of playing brought gospel and a lilt of Brazil to the set up; especially on the opening sumptuous Felicade. Over seven tracks, this live recording soaks up sauntering big band Highlife (Why Are You Blowing My Mind?), calypso via Soweto, trumpet heralding lullaby (Do Me So La So So) and yearned Sun Ra breaks bread with the Last Poets hippie jazz (Child Of The Earth).

Moving on with a rotating cast of players, only Carter on drums remaining an anchor on the next trio of albums, another New Yorker, saxophonist Al Abreu, would come into the fold – a member up until his untimely tragic death in car accident just a couple years later in ’69 – joined by Cape Town pianist Cecil Barnard and L.A. local jazz bassist Henry Franklin on the dynamite live ‘67 Alive And Well At The Whiskey. As the title suggests, lighting up the Sunset Stripe institution, the Whiskey A Go Go, Masekela’s altered troupe –changed after appearing at that year’s Monterey Pop Festival – fused a lively but controlled suite of Savoy jazz meets Motown poetic lamentable peace and love; the two featured tracks here, Son Of Ice Bag and Coincidence posing the chance of a better future.

That same group, and similar theme, appears on the next album, the phenomenally successful The Promise Of A Future. Recorded in less than an hour, the defining lulled cowbell-ringing track on that album, and as it would turn out most popular selling record of his career (more than three million copies; hitting the number one spot on the American pop charts), Grazing In The Grass helped Masekela reach a bigger audience commercially but also ended up hindering him long term; the expectation to follow up its success sending the cold footed doyen of fusion towards the insular and more experimental, refusing outright to repeat the same formula. Sampled excessively by the Hip-Hop fraternity, and so once again made popular for a new generation, the recognizable candour and busyness of this track, featuring the soft yielding licks of Bruce Langhorne, would be avoided on the darker, more direct and politically motivated barbed soul Masekela LP that followed it.





Already unique, incorporating the soul of South African music with jazz, rhythm and blues and South American grooves, The Promise Of A Better Future featured some fine iterations including the tribal Pharoah Sanders spiritual longing of These Are Seeds To Sow, and Caribbean swayed Vuca.

Whilst Grazing In The Grass was enjoying its popularity in the summer of ’68, America’s civil rights movement was hit, literally, with a double tragedy. In April Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, mortally wounded on a motel balcony in Memphis, and just two months later, Bobby Kennedy joined the fate of his brother, and was shot dead at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Riots lit up across the country and to all intents and purposes it looked like a concentrated effort was being made to off the civil rights leaders and friends, and to top it all the Vietnam War. In this incubator of inflamed passions, Masekela produced an album suffused with the stench of teargas and mace. Certainly angry, yet his statement of protest and succinctly named Masekela album was far from a blistering howl of rage. Closer to his peers own cathartic jazz albums of the same era, a sense of trying to work out just what the hell was going on, it resembles a gospel lament, a bluesy funk and most cooing experiment in despair.

Covering the escalating Vietnam protests (Mace And Grenades), the gold greedy excavating harsh realities and sorrows of the a South Africa miner, and the black majority’s uneasy struggle with the Boer colonists (Gold, Boermusiek), and famous controversial figures from the Black Panther movement (Blues For Huey), Masekela was a commercial failure on its release; spooking an audience familiar with the hit record, which evidently despite its lightness and catchy feel has origins in the townships of Masekela’s native homeland. It led to an amicable but nevertheless a split with the distributors, but allowed the Masekela and Levine partnership the freedom to continue pursuing the agenda they envisioned. It’s a good place to end the first CD on, as the next chapter opens on a move towards spiritual rejuvenation in Africa.





CD number two begins with Masekela and Levine’s 1970 ‘autonomous’ distribution deal with Motown. As part of this deal they’d also record albums with the South African singer Letta Mbulu and the Texas troupe The Jazz Crusaders (also known as The Crusaders). This would prove handy; as both went on to appear on Masekela’s own records.

The inaugural Motown album, Reconstruction, features a varied songbook of Pharoah Sanders spiritual rolling jazz (Salele Mane), languid veldt swooned and sweetly laced balladry (Woza) and the most delicious sounding of earthy soul covers from the Motown cannon (You Keep Me Hangin’ On). Featuring a heavy rotation again of players and backing singers, the album showcases Masekela’s subtleties and eclecticism; merging as he does the music and soul of two continents into a most peaceable fusion.

Keeping the political language conspicuous, if anything Reconstruction concentrates on setting the vibe, the messages echoed in the diverse nature and continuous exploration of his roots.

The next album in this collection brought Masekela together with two of his fellow compatriots, Jonas Gwangwa of the Johannesburg formed Jazz Epistles and the composer and singer Caiphus Semenya. The title says it all: Hugh Masekela And The Union Of South Africa. And the music is, as you’d expect, heavy on these influences. Yet the album features those unshakable R&B licks and southern gospel organ dabs, ala Billy Preston. This is in part down to the inclusion of the Texan soul group The Crusaders, manning the rhythm section.

It’s a beautiful communion between melting funk and elliptic rhythms of South Africa; another successful crossover; rasping yearns accompanied by the snozzled affectionate and caressing trumpet of Masekela, unmistakably South African but enriched with southern funk and soul.





Returning to his jazz roots, and once again emulating two of the artists that first inspired him, Masekela’s next record would take a pause and lean heavily towards the romantic Savoy and early Blue Note jazz of Horace Silver and Art Blakey. The Home Is Where The Music Is LP is only represented by one track. But what a track it is! With Larry Willis, another Manhattan School of Music luminary, invited to add virtuoso piano; South African jazz great Dudu Phunkwana brought in on alto saxophone (Masekela especially moved operations for this record to London, home of this South African exile at the time) and future Bill Evans band member Eddie Gomez on bass, this consummate set-up created fertile ground for a diaphanous and deep suite of romantic and thoughtful jazz meditations.

Lifted from that album, Minawa showcases the cascading flow and gestured pianist skills of Willis (a member of Masekela’s first group in ’65; featured on the live album, The Americanization Of Ooga Booga), who carries the deft track for some time before Makaya Ntshoko’s tumbling and staggered drums appear and Masekela’s lilting accentuate trumpet fluctuates over the top. Gradually it builds with motion and increases in tempo and volume until striking home; the busyness calmly retreating and pace, intensity dissipated.

His next album would be very different however. Another change in direction (of a Sort), the jazz fading for a more African feel. Bound for a ‘spiritual journey back to Africa’ after spending thirteen years in America, Masekela travelled from Guinea to Liberia and Zaire searching for inspiration and the musicians that would back him on his next musical adventure. Preempted by fate, an invitation from Nigeria’s Afrobeat progenitor and lifetime ruler of the self-invented Kalakula Republic, Fela Kuti, brought Masekela to Lagos in the spring of ’73. Though enjoying his time at Kuti’s compound kingdom, he accomplished little creatively. A tip from Kuti about a must-see act, a perfect fit for Masekela’s brand of African fusions, the Ghanaian-based Hedzoleh Soundz, did however pay off.

Joining his Nigerian guide, who brought a cortège of his wives with him, Kuti took Masekela to Accra to see for himself this adulated young outfit. Catching a midnight killer set at The Napoleon Club, he was instantly hooked. And so began a congruous collaboration between the two that would last in varied formats across the next three albums.

Introducing marked that initial dynamism; Masekela channeling what would be a month-long partnership, the South African virtuoso playing with the Soundz every single night. Kuti arranged a recording session for them both at the E.M.I. studios back in Lagos in the summer of that same year. The results of which, featured in their entirety on the second CD of this collection, combine the lilting soul of South Africa with the busy tribal percussion of West Africa: The atavistic talking drums, floating flute and relaxed but tight percussion traversing Afro funk and roots music brilliantly.

Wowing those back in the States, the group would be brought over for a special tour, beginning with a performance in Washington D.C. in January of ’74, finishing with a sold-out fortnight at the famous Troubadour club in L.A.





The final section of this triple CD set opens with Masekela’s ’74 album I Am Not Afraid. Recorded immediately after the successful stateside tour with the Soundz, the cross-pollination was once more mixed up with the inclusion of Crusaders Joe Sample and Stix Hooper: Invited in to mix their infectious Texan R&B and jazz lilt with the Soundz soulful funky tribal percussions to make, what would become, a great pop record.

Included in its entirety (the second of only two such privileges), I Am Not Afraid is considered by Levine to be one of the highlights of his time producing Masekela’s most formative albums. And he’d be right. Encapsulating all the various strands thus far, the album is both a fearless but beautifully accessible work of art. The highly popular grassland hymn, come sweeping grand minor jazzy-soul opus, Stimela, is just one highlight from what is a bright African odyssey. Setting moods perfectly, following on from a theme and location that has been used time and again by all the titans of jazz, Masekela transports the listener to mysterious nights in Tunisia, the bustling kaleidoscopic ‘market place’, and tempts us through a the meandrous jungle. The swansong, Been Such A Long Time Gone, is almost a reprise of all the previous songs; a connecting final lyrical geographical journey in the sweltering heat through history, one that takes in the sight and sounds of North and West Africa; ending up drifting down the Nile towards the Fertile Crescent.





In the same year, 1974, Masekela and Levine set up the famous musical jamboree to celebrate Ali’s titanic grudge-match with Foreman in Zaire. Part of a campaign and African revolution in directing their own affairs, with now more or less every former colony of the European powers independent, the pair were, with good intentions, drawn into a feverish Zaire renaissance. The abhorrent truths of some of these regimes, notably Zaire’s own Mobutu, would years later put paid to the general optimism, but at the time in striking a coup with hosting one of the most anticipated clashes of the century the country’s capital of Kinshasa became the hottest ticket on the global stage. The same label behind this compilation also released the fruits of Masekela and Levine’s musical stage show, the Zaire ’74 soundtrack, a while back: a collection with the emphasis on the all too forgotten African acts who performed at the three day extravaganza, previously overshadowed by the stars of America, such as James Brown, and all but erased or featured sporadically in subsequent documentaries.

Returning to the states in the fall of ’74, temporarily settling in the capital, Masekela hit the ground running, assembling his new African band; first recruiting two Hedzoleh Soundz members, percussionist Asante and bassist Stanley Todd, his drummer brother Frankie and fellow Ghanaian, shekere player Odinga ‘Guy’ Warren. Recent arrivals from Nigeria, O.J. Ekemode, Yaw Opoku and Adelja Gboyega and another Ghanaian, conga maestro (famous for his turn on The Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil) Rocky Dzidzornu boosted the already dynamic and highly talented ranks. Taking this new troupe out onto the road in ’75, wowing audiences wherever they went, Masekela was soon lined-up for another recording session. Old pal and boss of the then new label Casablanca signed them up after witnessing one of these infamous performances; making them the label’s inaugural signing. The Boy’s Doin’ It is the result. Serious but funky, given a Casablanca label sheen, yet still rustically bustling and earthy, there is some very bright serenading going on: especially on the lilting homage to Mama. Masekela, as an aside, would open for the funk progenitor George Clinton on his ‘insane’ tour: the sounds of the motherland going down well with those fans of the Funkadelic and Parliament icon.

Dressed as the captain, mocking the European explorers that stamped their name and ideals on the ‘so-called’ new world, on the cover of the last album in this three-disc spanning collection, Masekela intelligently and ironically channels the Colonial Man of the title. Musically crisscrossing the slave routes from Africa to the Americas, he takes his intrepid troupe (now assembled under the OJAH moniker) on a tropical sauntered voyage.

Hardly a raging post-colonial diatribe or resented seething tide of angry protest, the album was still seen as high risk, though Casablanca gave it their blessing. Commercially it bombed. Yet it is a fantastic album. Certainly, and quite rightly, the themes of colonization, enslavement and stripping a country’s wealth had until recent times been missing the victims and poor unfortunates experiences. A vocal activist on both sides of the Atlantic (though he believed that unlike South Africa, the black population in America would always struggle for parity whilst the population was majority white European; he had more optimism for overcoming apartheid in his native homeland, returning there in the 80s), Masekela eases through the themes on this most sophisticated, longing album.

From the salty sea foam lullaby sauntering of making it ashore on the Brazilian coast (A Song For Brazil) to liltingly cutting a passage through the interior of Africa, following in Dr. Livingstone’s footprints, weaving in the ivory trade and Conrad’s Congo (Witch Doctor), this fusion of continents is a clever, poetic purview of colonization. It is the perfect end to a great collection.





Probably by now much of the material has become available in some format or another, yet for fans and casual interested parties alike it proves a wonderful, enlightening compilation; and in the wake of Hugh Masekela’s death earlier this year, a brilliant tribute to one of the greats. Not to do a disservice to his dear friend, label co-owner, producer and partner on many projects together, this is also a welcome reminder and celebration of Stewart Levine; the guiding force behind so many of Masekela’s richest albums. 66-76 will prove to be both an essential collection of a most creative period, and a great introduction to those who are not so aware of this great legacy.

 

Dominic Valvona

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ALBUM FEATURE
Words: Dominic Valvona


 

Various   ‘Zaire 74: The African Artists’
Wrasse Records,  26th May 2017

Finally. The often overlooked, sidelined, and due in part to hustler/promoter Don King’s original court injection, the exciting homegrown African acts that performed as part of the legendary “rumble in the jungle” (Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman) jamboree can now be heard for the first time ever. Presented on two discs but also available as a triple vinyl set, the Wrasse label’s Zaire 74 compilation features complete performances from the leading lights of the local Zaire – renamed after much turmoil and war as the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the 90s – music scene and the world renowned South African émigré chanteuse Miriam Makeba.

Overshadowed by their American counterparts, especially number one soul brother James Brown, Zaire’s every bit as funky and dynamic artists were left on the cutting room floor for the most part in subsequent documentaries of the heavyweight championship in the country’s capital, Kinshasa. Notably the award-winning When We Were Kings, which is generous in its footage of Brown and his co-stars on stage including B.B. King, Bill Withers, The Pointer Sisters and The Fania Latin All Stars. In 2009 there was a chance of redemption in the form of the Soul Power documentary, which at least featured some of the Zairian talent and Makeba, yet was far from complete. Some of this exclusion is down to the checkered history of legal disputes. All of which are chronicled in the accompanying booklet that comes with this 34-track suite; brilliantly and informatively put together by the original dream team of Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine, the record label owners and producers who planned and recorded the whole affair and have now remastered it for this new compilation.

For an event meant to not only grandstand Ali’s titanic grudge-match with Foreman but also to celebrate Zaire and indeed the entire continent’s new found freedoms, now that for the most part Europe’s colonial powers had all but granted independence to their territories in Africa, it’s surprising to find that it has taken forty-odd years for this complete picture to emerge.





The bombast theater that followed Ali everywhere – encouraged and riled all the way by the late great showman – moved to Africa for a host of reasons. But indulged by Ali, Zaire’s leader of the time, President, formerly general, Mobutu hijacked the attention whenever he could to advance his own aims. Mobutu had himself brutally seized power from the democratically elected Patrice Lumumba – of which great hopes were predicted – in a military coup in 1965, so could do with some, even if it was a façade, positive media attention. Playing the part of antagonist and stubborn defender of African “authenticity” then, Mobutu called for a celebration of musical, cultural and traditional dress. History as it transpired, proved that he was in fact a plundering dictator who’d bled his people and country dry, but in ’74 the world’s media spotlight was angled on the former Belgian colony; giving it a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to promote a sense of self-belief and optimism.

For Masekela and Levine, the congruous musical partnership behind the US label Chisa Records and African music experts – the South African-born Masekela’s many travails across the continent included a “spiritual pilgrimage” that saw him meet such iconic figures as Fela Kuti and produce the highly influential Ghanaian seven-piece Hedzoleh Soundz -, this was an opportunity to further the course of the artists; hopefully attracting international acclaim and more lucrative record contracts for them. Acquiring the rights to stage a three-day extravaganza in September of ’74, the US-based partnership signed-up a weighty stellar line-up of acts from the Americas, but they also hired Zaire’s best-known bandleader and influential icon at the time, Franco (Francois Luambo to give him his full title), to consult as a “creative guide” on the African line-up. Franco himself appears naturally, leading the sunshine soul and off-kilter rhythmic T.P. O.K. Jazz band.

Stewart recorded proceedings in a mock-up studio, shipped over from the States, below the infamous 20th of May stadium in Kinshasa – named in tribute to the date of Mobutu’s bloody coup. And what he would capture was electric!





Between the flashes and blasts of screeching heralding horns, dynamite funk and R’n’B, much of the music was of a sweeter disposition; a counterpoint to the violence that would take part in the ring and to the extreme brutality meted out by the regime. The more blazing and up-tempo displays of Afro-funk and rock are delivered by the opening act. the slick Tabu Ley Rochereau And Afrisa; introduced with a soul revue instrumental shoe-shuffler of fanfare horns, jangly guitar and tight drum fills. A run-through of various moods and style changes follow from the man they called “the voice of lightness”, who it’s said, “stole the show” from his chief rival Franco. Skipping hi-hat action and rasping, swooning saxophone lullabies meet with The Meters deep funk basslines, and staccato rhythms, as Tabu and his ensemble work the crowd. The consummate showman receives many rounds of applause and thrives of the intense energy that pours from the 50,000 strong African audience, especially on what sounds like a local favourite, the grand finale, Annie; the crowd chanting back the words and sentiment.

That much-celebrated rival and Zaire 74 consultant, the mighty Franco, backed by local legends T.P. O.K. Jazz, takes up the lion’s share of the compilation’s second act with the complete eleven-track set list of dance band jumpers and off-kilter soul-jazz grooves.

Rising in status and influence, from the young streetwise “urchin” who built his own guitar and cultivated a signature repetitive attacking style, to revered singer and adopter of various musical genres from all over the world – Cuban rumba to Highlife – Franco’s enthusiasm and promotion of Mobutu’s “authenticity” campaign soured the star’s reputation for a while: Mobutu in kind, in exchange for Franco’s endorsement, smoothed the way for his growing business empire. To be fair, Franco became a vocal critic of the regime, penning a protest when Mobutu, making a political statement, hung a number of so-called “dissident” politicians.

Easing in and reminding us of the powerful line-up under his control that night in Zaire’s capital – a frontline of singers that included the talented Sam Mangwana, a seven-piece brass section and the gifted guitarist Simon ‘Simaro’ Lutumba – Franco’s band kick-off proceedings with a slinky soul-jazz, hot-stepping introduction and move congruously into a rhythmic change of direction on the proceeding cradled horns tropical Nzoto. Lolloping grooves, busy hi-hats and dazzled brass follow as a band at the peak of their abilities and showmanship take us on a Zairian journey through down tempo romantic balladry and sunshine pop.





The major star of Zaire 74: The African Artists, in an international sense anyway, South African soulstress totem of hope, Miriam Makeba brought a soothing hush of spiritual reflection to the stage. A universal message of optimism that chimed with the conscious celebration of a growing independence, Makeba’s sentiments are honorable enough, but can’t help but sound naïve in the context of Mobutu’s grandstanding and legacy.

The South African singer and leading advocate in the struggle against her homeland’s apartheid regime, was one of the continent’s most recognized talents having made a name for herself in the USA during the early 60s. Whether it was addressing the UN in ’63 and ‘64 or performing at JFK’s birthday party at Madison Square Gardens in ’62, Makeba became a major star and intentionally or not, became a Western figurehead for Africa. This soon changed after she married the divisive civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. A union too far it seemed for the US music industry as concerts were soon cancelled and she was given the cold-shoulder, leading in part to a move back to Africa, into the embrace of Guinea’s President Sékou Touré – an instigator of the “authenticity” campaign that Mobutu would later borrow. Unfortunately this new found home from home came with certain obligations, namely the requirement to perform when prompted to Touré’s guests and dignitaries. It was during this period that she appeared on the Zaire 74 bill.

In praise of Mobutu, certain dedications are made as Makeba delivers an almost venerated performance of swaddling, healing laments and prayer. Cooing, panting, trilling and soulfully fluctuating in an aria-style, Makeba yearns for unity and respect as she sings the South African anthem Amampondo, the sauntering swaying Umqhokozo, and breathy elevating ballad West Wind (written by her daughter Bongi; a song that would appear the following year on Makeba’s The Guinea Years album).

Sharing the stage with Makeba, the lesser known but in no way less important dynamic funk outfit Orchestre Stukas whip the audience up with an energetic set of local Zairian style rumba and western rock and funk. Lively to say the least, the Stukas were a sort of Zaire pop group, known by the French slang for the genre, as a “ye-ye” group. The wild gesticulations and dancing of front man Lita Bembo, learning a few tricks from James Brown, combined with the Hendrix-style teeth-playing guitar flamboyance of Samora Tediangaye brought them a reputation for showmanship in a scene filled with extroverts. Under these circumstances with this size of a local crowd and potential to reach the international masses, the Stukas took up the challenge and to all intents and purposes lit up the stage.





Playing on a different night, the Zairian rival to Makeba, Abeti Masikini was another initiate of the local rumba style, which she roughened up with the wailing rock guitar of her brother Abumba. Shifting between more traditional narration and sung exultations of peace, love and hope and a fluttering vocal display of chanting, panting and screaming, Abeti flows from Chanson to the tribal and gospel.

Escaping the worst of the violence that followed independence a decade or so before, Abeti was sent away to school in the safer environment of Léopoldville, where she could hone her vocal talents. Off the back of her success in winning a number of singing competitions Abeti eventually met music entrepreneur Gérard Akueson, who invited her to record in Togo. More or less coaching his star turn and taking her on a tour of Francophone West Africa, Akueson took a punt and organized a performance for her in Paris in 1973. Feted by, among others, the celebrated futuristic fashion designer Pierre Cardin, Abeti proved a popular attraction in Europe. Inevitably she was drawn into Mobutu’s sphere of influence on her return to Zaire; wheeled out to sing for dignitaries at the President’s insistence, which on one occasion led to her cancelling a US tour. Though still in the throes of optimism, Abeti dedicates a song of praise to Mobutu before launching into her varied set of styles.

 

Abeti’s Hendrix-extravagant inspired guitar virtuoso brother Abumba appears ahead of her in the line-up. A brief but dynamic two-song burst of shrieking wah-wah contortions and counterpoint bended-knee, more intimate, yearnings showcase the Afro-rock chop and skills of one of Zaire’s leading guitarists.

As a final curtain call and reminder of Mobutu’s “authenticity” mantra, the “massed ranks” of the atavistic Pembe Dance Troupe perform a tumbling, leaping Zairian ceremonial dance. Some will have seen footage of this on the Soul Power documentary of course; an animal-clothed ensemble of 300 people acrobatically springing across the stage in tribal communion. We get to hear it of course without the visuals, but the aural effect – the stage threatening to collapse under the weight and explosive excitement at any time – is still dramatic.

 

As fight fans will know, the titanic slugfest in Zaire was postponed for a month after George Foreman sustained an injury during training back in the US; moving the fight date to October. The three-day music festival though went ahead as planned. Unfortunately most of the exposure then and in the years that followed went to the “western stars”, with even the message of African unification and optimism lost in the excitement of the big fight – which let’s be fair was the main attraction, everything else a mere sideshow – and later by Mobutu’s own legacy.

Convoluted appearances, popping up briefly (if at all) in various documentaries, the African stars of Zaire have finally received the satisfying platform they craved. Thanks to Levine and Masekela’s patience, Zaire 74 collects those seldom-heard performances for the first time ever in this brilliant and most vibrant of releases; an album which acts both as a document and as an exciting musical experience.


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