Before The Rumble In The Jungle, Music Rang Out At Zaire 74 Trumpeter Hugh Masekela and producer Stewart Levine organized the 1974 festival and produced the new album Zaire 74: The African Artists, which captures performances by Miriam Makeba, Franco and more.
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Before The Rumble In The Jungle, Music Rang Out At Zaire 74

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

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

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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).

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