Various ‘Zaïre 74: The African Artists’ 3LP/2CD (Wrasse) 5/5

The recent heavyweight championship fight at Wembley stadium in London captivated audiences worldwide and music played a minor part in proceedings. Flash back some forty plus years, however, and another epic fight, that between Muhammad Ali and George Freeman in the Zairean capital of Kinshasa in 1974, served as the pretext for one of the most daring and exhilarating series of music concerts ever organised on the African continent. Events were captured on film by director Leon Gast and just a tiny part of what actually took place came out on the DVD documentary, ‘Soul power’. However, this focused attention primarily on the African-American artists who were flown over to perform a series of concerts and, as an additional bonus, the cream of Latin music stars, including Cuban singer Celia Cruz, who accompanied the blues, funk and soul artists. Prominent among the latter was James Brown whose performances are briefly showcased on the documentary.
However, a second part to the equation has until now received only fleeting coverage and that is the participation of some of the most esteemed of African musicians, and this is where, ‘Zaïre ’74’ comes into it’s own. If Bob Marley was the undisputed king of reggae, then the colossus (in all senses of the word, not only the breadth of his work, but also his sheer physical size and gargantuan appetite) that was musician leader and guitarist from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) is surely Marley’s equal on the African continent. That his status and pantheon of work has not spread wider is largely due to his untimely death just as the concept of world roots music was taking off. This comprehensive concert coverage puts the record straight and, moreover, includes Franco’s main rival, and a distinguished ambassador of Congolese soukous music in his own right, Tabu Ley Rochereau. One wonders what James Brown made of contemporary African music. What is clear that African musicians were soaking up African-American influences and presumably vice-versa. Both of the first introductory pieces, by Tabu Ley on CD 1 and Franco on CD 2, indicate that they were listening intently to James Brown live, and for the former, the JB inflected guitar and drum beats given a Congolese flavour are a treat. Franco in turn pays homage on a largely instrumental introductory number that fans of Afro-Beat funk will immediately identify with and the incessant guitar licks are a joy to behold. Of course, a key feature of Congolese soukous are the slow, quasi-funeral intros, before shifting up several gears in the main part, and this is highlighted on, ‘Kasai’, before the second feature, namely among the sweetest sounding vocal harmonies on the planet come into play (and one that give roots reggae vocalists a good run for their money), with those glorious guitar riffs that flow endlessly.

Equally, the role of women in African music should never be overlooked, or downgraded and, arguably the African equivalent of the ‘Queen of Latin music’ in Celia Cruz was Miriam Makeba, who had already conquered the United States. By this period in the mid-1970s, she was heavily influenced by emerging pan-African political movements and openly combatting the repressive apartheid regime in her native South Africa, having sought refuge in Guinea. Operating with a pared down and largely acoustic formation, Makeba, affectionately known as ‘Mama Africa’, offers a lovely alternative to the big band formations of the two Congolese masters. In French, which Makeba had started to master while resident in francophone Africa, she contributes, ‘Umqhokozo’, while in English, the rhythm of, ‘West wind’, bears a remarkable resemblance to an early 1960s Serge Gainsbourg composition from his jazz period. Another singer worthy of attention here and featured extensively on CD 1 is Zaire’s very own musical queen in Abeti. Just a year previous, Abeti had made her concert debut in France at the prestigious l’Olympia venue in Paris, and this had clearly given her all the confidence she required for the performance in Kinshasa. Her voice has a wonderful rustic charm, with an infectious bass line that combines beautifully with her naturally high-pitched vocals. Her sound is typified by, ‘Wandugo wampenzi’. A far lesser known group are the Kinshasa-based boy group, Orchestre Stukas, and they took no board funk and pop influences as well as those of their native land. They also offered up praise songs to the political leader at the time, the dictator Mobutu, and the close relationship between musicians and politicians is a key feature of Congolese music.

Co-produced by South African trumpet legend, Hugh Masekela, and the original musical concert producer, Stuart Levine, this extremely well thought out and perfectly executed chronicle of the music, includes individual interviews with the pair who reminisce on how events unfolded. The excellent package design and outer sleeve by Milton Glaser brings back the 1970s like an Adidas log of the era (he really out to design a t-shirt with that cover, it so reeks of 1970s memorabilia) round off an outstanding re-issue with excellent and informative sleeve notes contributed by renowned world roots music, Robin Denslow. As a whole, this package is likely to feature on this writer’s end of year listing of re-issue for world roots category.

Tim Stenhouse