The Rumble in the Jungle and Hugh Masekela’s quest for African Music

Zaire 74

Last month saw the passing away of one of the world’s greatest boxing legends, an activist and a poet. Millions of Mohammad Ali fans poured onto social media to commemorate the life and times of Ali with every local and international media sharing various aspects of what made him such an enigma.

One of Ali’s greatest boxing fights in history was his bout with George Foreman. a fight that was dubbed The Rumble in the Jungle by boxing promoter Don King was happening in Kinshasa, Zaire (now DRC). The year was 1974.

The story of an equally significant event that was scheduled to preceded the fight is not told as often as it should. Even when the opportunity came during the weeks following the death and Mohammad Ali, the media’s focus was solely on this particular fight in Zaire that almost didn’t take off due to Foreman’s injury.

“Zaire 74″ -a three day concert featuring some of greatest musical artists of the time: James Brown, B.B. King, the Spinners, Bill Withers, the Fania All-Stars, Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango and a variety of Zairian artists, like”Franco” Luambo Makiadi, Tabu Ley was one of the biggest and most significant musical event collaborations by American and African musicians.

The concert was organized by the renowned South African musician Hugh Masekela and his longtime friend record producer Stewart Levine. At the time of organising the concert, Hugh had hits in the United States with the pop jazz tunes “Up, Up and Away (song) and the number-one smash “Grazing in the Grass”, which had sold four million copies.and was subsequently featured in the film Monterey Pop.

Hugh Masekela was 35 years old at the time. Together with his former Manhattan School of Music roommate, they envisioned the Zaire 74 festival as a way to raise African music’s profile in the United States; a goal Levine later deemed “a complete failure” because “hardly anybody saw it.

The late Boxing Legend Muhammad Ali in Zaire with the then president Mobutu and promoter Don King

The late Boxing Legend Muhammad Ali in Zaire with the then president Mobutu and promoter Don King

To an African music lover, the 2008 release of Soul Power, director Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte’s documentary about Zaire ’74 offers a rare glimpse into a time when African Musicians were at par with some of the greatest American blues musicians, before African music was put in a box and labeled ‘World Music’.

The one and a half hour documentary which captures the journey at the festival’s organising office, the pre-flight party, the flight and eventually the night concert is one that speaks of the great power of music and how the love of music transcended all barriers to give Zaireans and the world a spectacular blend of African and American sounds.

Hugh Masekela’s role in bringing his fellow African musicians such as Miriam Makeba, Franco’s TPOK Jazz, Tabu Ley together with American Blue’s singers who were at the height of their success.It wasn’t obvious at the time, but in hindsight Zaire 74 marked the beginning of the end of traditional soul and rhythm and blues from mainstream.

Masekela will be performing at the Safaricom Jazz Lounge on 12th August accompanied by Nairobi Horns Project, Mwai and The Truth and Shamsi Music.

While Masekela -a two-time Grammy Award nominee is not new to Kenya, this will be his first appearance at the Safaricom Jazz Lounge, which is one of a series of events that lead up to the annual Safaricom International Jazz Festival.

42 years after the Zaire 74 concert, Hugh Masekela is still one of the few African music legends whose music defies the constraints that many African musicians find themselves in on a world stage as it seeks to initiate a new generation of music lovers.

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