Sunday, October 4, 2009



Now that Barak Obama is elected president, you can watch the festival concert documentary “Soul Power” with a sense of pride or sense of poignancy, depending on your politics. Filmed in 1974 in the capitol of Zaire to capture the excitement of a huge stadium showcase for musicians of color -- headlined by such American acts as James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers and the Spinners ­­-- the filmmakers spend as much time backstage as out front.

“Soul Power” is a collection of clips pulled from hundreds of hours of footage originally intended to prove Zaire deserved First World status as the first African country to pull off a three-day world-class stadium concert. Much of that public relations footage must have concentrated on African musicians, both the professional and amateur variety. Approximately half the 93-minute film spotlights these players.

An elegant gentleman with a soprano sax proves to be an exceptionally adept Pied Piper in the street, attracting crowds of enchanted children. But he’s only one example, dancers and drummers of every sidewalk sort keep the doc’s beat alive in between film clips of the featured acts.

Jeffrey Levy-Hinte as director conceived of “Soul Power” as a definite statement connecting the music with the political tenor of the times. He also takes pains to show how the dreams of a Third World country can clash with the harsh realities of technology’s demands for such basic requirements as access to a stable and much-larger-than-normal supply of electricity.

Which is also the source of the pride or poignancy response. Historically, the soul show festival was supposed to accompany the George Foreman-Muhammad Ali championship fight. But the fight was delayed after Foreman suffered a minor injury during his preparation training.

The all-star soul revue became a stand-alone African celebration of Black Power. All the American entertainers, in those 1970s bellbottom trousers and jackets with way-wide lapels, are fuming with frustration over the second class treatment of African-Americans back home.

Seen in retrospect, there was no one predicting in 35 years a representative of their race would be elected President of the United States.

As a concert experience, it is exhilarating to see James Brown in his prime. A tightly wrapped bundle of kinetic muscle making those full-bodied splits seem so effortless, he earned every accolade as the Godfather of Soul and the hardest working man in show business.

The other performers weren’t so enticingly presented. Bill Withers sings an intense but slow-moving ballad, “Hope She’ll Be Happier.” B.B. King works his tired warhorse “The Thrill Is Gone.” Miriam Makeba scolds her audience for not appreciating the African language that is her native tongue, then sings her international hit known as “The Click Song.”

The most positive note was sung by the late Celia Cruz working with the Fania All-Stars. The conga virtuoso who calls himself Big Black also gave a memorable performance.

From a cinematic standpoint, “Soul Power” doesn’t pack the wallop of Michael Wadleigh’s defining documentary, “Woodstock.” But as a snapshot of one 1974 weekend in the heart of Africa when black kids in the States were equally determined to be defined by their music, “Soul Power” is right on!


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