Before The Rumble In The Jungle, Music Rang Out At Zaire 74

Jun 14, 2017
Originally published on June 14, 2017 10:47 pm

In the fall of 1974, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali met in the country of Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, for the legendary boxing match known as "The Rumble in the Jungle." Although the Rumble had to be postponed until later that autumn, a related promotional event went on as scheduled and turned out to be similarly momentous: Zaire 74, a music festival where some of America's greatest black artists played alongside Africa's leading talent to an audience of tens of thousands.

Documentaries and albums chronicling that festival have concentrated on the American performers, such as James Brown and B.B. King. The African artists have not received the same shine — and disputes over money and control, which kept a tight lid on concert footage, have not helped. Except for the South African legend Miriam Makeba, these musicians were all Congolese, including rumba maestros Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau.

But now their performances can be heard, many of them in full, on a new live album titled Zaire 74: The African Artists. It was produced by South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and American record producer Stewart Levine — the same men who organized that festival in Kinshasa more than 40 years ago with the aim of making the world more conscious of African music.

Read on for highlights from Ari Shapiro's interview with Masekela and Levine, and listen at the audio link to hear the full conversation and snippets of music from Zaire 74: The African Artists.

Interview Highlights

On what organizing the festival was like

Hugh Masekela: From the time we started to organize the festival, until after the festival, it was very hard work. I think we both lost about 20 pounds each. ... It was the first thing of its kind and it was very exciting, the artists were excited. The Congolese audience had never been to anything like it. And actually nobody had ever been to anything like it.

Stewart Levine: You must remember one thing: The African artists had never played in front of such a large audience. So they were incredibly inspired. And the audience knew them better than they did James Brown, and they were out to cut James Brown. [Laughter.]

On rediscovering the recordings that would become Zaire 74: The African Artists

Levine: I refer to it as musical archaeology because we in fact had never heard these performances. They were recorded while, like Hugh says, we were running around trying to help get this thing organized and put up onstage. So when we opened these tapes up about a year and a half ago, we were stunned. We were mesmerized. Because with all due respect to the American artists, who were great, these guys were out to do it in front of their own people. You have to realize this was a big moment for this country, and a big moment for these performers. So you really do have this music being played at its highest level. We were lucky to have had these tapes. When we opened them, we just decided maybe after 42 years, we should remember the plot, which was to introduce this music to the world. So it's never too late, I guess.

On the poignancy of these performances seeing the light of day only after the musicians' deaths

Masekela: Louis Armstrong has been dead for a long time, but people still listen to his music. One thing that is great about the music is that you can be dead and [it can] become popular. You can get known whether you are alive or not. Music lasts forever.

Levine: If we didn't think that these things were relevant and vibrant, then we wouldn't have released it, period. If they sounded like field recordings from the '20s, we wouldn't go near it. But they're hot! They're energized. We caught it. It was the golden age of multi-track recording, it was 16-track recording. They hold up, and besides just being a piece of history, it's a great piece of recording. I don't mean technically, I mean the recording is great when it captures the moment, and there you have it. These artists become alive when you put the needle down. Here they are!

Web intern Karen Gwee contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 1974, two of the greatest fighters in boxing met in the country of Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. George Foreman faced Muhammad Ali in a fight known as the rumble in the jungle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Foreman dances now. Ooh, it's Ali with a right-hand lead again.

SHAPIRO: In the days leading up to the fight, some of America's greatest black artists played a music festival alongside Africa's leading musical talent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's all welcome the world's godfather of soul, soul brother number one, James Brown. James Brown.

SHAPIRO: The American acts from that festival have been captured in documentaries and albums. The Africans were largely neglected.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCO & T.P.O.K. JAZZ ORCHESTRA'S "INTRODUCTION")

SHAPIRO: Now a new album brings those performances to light. It's called "Zaire 74: The African Artists." It's produced by the same men who put together that musical festival more than 40 years ago. South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela joins us now from Johannesburg and American record producer Stewart Levine joins us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Gentlemen, thank you both for being here.

STEWART LEVINE: Nice to be with you.

HUGH MASEKELA: Thank you for inviting us.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what you wanted to accomplish when you set out to plan this festival back in 1974.

LEVINE: So our initial reasons for doing this three-day music festival was to create more consciousness throughout the world for African music as well as American music at the time. And we designed this festival to include America's greatest artists alongside basically the Congo's greatest artists, Zaire at the time. And that was why we did it initially.

SHAPIRO: Mr. Masekela, can you describe what the festival felt like, what it was like being there during those three days?

MASEKELA: From the time when we started to organize the festival until after festival, it was very hard work. I think we both lost about 20 pounds each. There were 50,000 people on the - you know, and maybe another 50,000 people and around the stage. It was the first thing of its kind. And it was very exciting. The artists were excited. The Congolese audience had never been to anything like it. And actually, nobody had ever been to anything like it. So it was very exciting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CELICIA")

TABU LEY ROCHEREAU: (Singing in foreign language).

LEVINE: You must remember one thing. The African artists had never played in front of such a large audience, so they were incredibly inspired. And the audience knew them better than they did James Brown. And they were out to cut James Brown.

(LAUGHTER)

LEVINE: So...

SHAPIRO: So we're listening here to Tabu Ley Rochereau and Afrisa. The track is called "Cecilia" (ph). And the lyric says, I met a beautiful woman today and I fell in love with her. I will marry her and live by her side forever. Cecilia has stolen my heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CELICIA")

TABU LEY ROCHEREAU: (Singing in foreign language).

MASEKELA: The Congolese artists worked very hard, this - composed this song especially for the festival. And with the help of Franco, who was really our liaison, who put them all together for us, the music that they play is very different from what they usually - they are known for.

SHAPIRO: You mention Franco, who is one of the artists on this album who has 10 tracks. Tell us about Franco. And which song can we listen to to hear some of this?

MASEKELA: Well, Franco was really like at the time the leading musician in the Congo. And he also helped us to put together the festival. He chose more of, like, I would say, a traditional folk song set. And that's what he performs mostly there.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to "Kasai." The lyrics say, God is love. We must love each other. We must fear God. We should not hate each other because God is love.

MASEKELA: Hallelujah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KASAI")

FRANCO: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: These performances took place more than 40 years ago. What is it like for you to hear this music all these decades later?

LEVINE: Well, I refer to it as musical archaeology because we, in fact, had never heard these performances. They were recorded while, like Hugh says, we were running around, trying to help get this thing organized and put up on stage. So when we opened these tapes up about a year and a half ago we were stunned. We were mesmerized because with all due respect to the American artists who were great, these guys were out to do it in front of their own people.

You have to realize this was just a big moment for this country and a big moment for these performers. So you really do have this music being played at its highest level. We're lucky to have had these tapes. And when we opened them we just decided, well, maybe after 42 years we should remember the plot, which was to introduce this music to the world. So it's never too late, I guess.

MASEKELA: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Hugh Masekela, how many of these African artists are still alive today?

MASEKELA: None.

SHAPIRO: None. Is there a poignancy in finally releasing these recordings to an American audience after all of the artists themselves have died?

MASEKELA: We are more interested in the greatness of the music. Louis Armstrong has been dead for a long time, but people still listen to his music. So the one thing that's great about music is that you can be dead and become popular or you can get known whether you are alive or not. Music lasts forever.

LEVINE: If we didn't think that these things were relative and vibrant then we wouldn't have released it, period. If they sounded like, you know, field recordings from the '20s we wouldn't have gone near it. But they're hot. They're energized.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

LEVINE: We caught it. It was the golden age of multi-track recording. It was 16-track recording. They hold up. And besides just being a piece of history, it's a great piece of recording. I don't mean technically. I just mean the recording is great when it captures the moment. And there you have it. These artists become alive when you put the needle down. Here they are.

SHAPIRO: Is there a song we can end on that will really just transport us to that night in Kinshasa in 1974 and take us there?

(SOUNDBITE OF ABUMBA MASIKINI SONG, "MAGALI YA KINSHASA")

LEVINE: Well, there's a song that's by Abumba Masikini which sets up - he was the brother of Abeti, who was a big star at the time. And unfortunately, this fellow Abumba died at a age. But if you listen to it, it's so hot. And he sounds like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page and Lightnin' Hopkins.

(LAUGHTER, SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGALI YA KINSHASA")

ABUMBA MASIKINI: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: We're going to go out with "Magali Ya Kinshasa" by Abumba Masikini. Gentlemen, it has been so wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much.

LEVINE: My pleasure.

MASEKELA: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: That is Stewart Levine and Hugh Masekela, the producers of the original Zaire 74 music festival and now the new CD "Zaire 74: The African Artists."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGALI YA KINSHASA")

MASIKINI: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.