Conga in the Congo
FANS OF When We Were Kings, Leon Gast’s magnificent documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle, will recall that, before George Forman and Muhammad Ali got it on in Kinshasa, a concert took place in that central African city. It took more than two decades for Gast’s footage to make it into a feature and another 13 years for Jeffrey Levy-Hinte to edit shots of such luminaries as James Brown, The Spinners, Bill Withers and Miriam Makeba into this concert film. The wait has been worth it.
Presented without a voiceover, Soul Power begins with clips of worried men in large-collared shirts speaking worriedly into telephones. Forman has injured his eye and the Zaire 74 festival will now take place some weeks before the fight itself.
Shot by the likes of Albert Maysles, the footage cuts between the artists preparing themselves and the Ali entourage cooling their nippy heels. A jolly George Plimpton, sheets proudly to the wind, staggers before the camera and smiles broadly. Ali himself chats to the documentary makers.
Harder men than me might complain that the film doesn’t address the corruption and oppression of the Zairean state. Much of that material is, however, to be found in When We Were Kings, and most sensible viewers will see through the naivety of Ali’s slightly patronising eulogies to the honest, idyllic African life. “New York’s the real jungle,” he says.
At any rate, Soul Power’s main purpose is to celebrate some of the best black music of the era, and the performances by Bill Withers (uncharacteristically gruff) and James Brown (gloriously disciplined) don’t disappoint.
The most impressive turn, however, comes from the dignified Miriam Makeba. “People always ask: ‘How do you make that sound?’” she says before delivering a gorgeous performance of the appropriately titled Click Song.
“I tell them it’s my native tongue.” She’s smiling, but a lot of folks in the wings probably felt properly told off.
The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, belts one out in Kinshasa