Before the internet flattened the world, before Western radio hegemony resulted in Ed Sheeran being playing in roadside bars in Abidjan, before Peter Gabriel, and even before "World Music" as a business model, there was Zaire 74. The three day festival in Kinshasa—in what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo—was the first African music festival of its kind.
Zaire 74 was visualized and made real by Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine, two friends who had met more than a decade earlier at Manhattan School of Music and had co-founded the now-legendary Chisa Records in 1964. Both would become stars in their respective fields: Masekela as one of South Africa's greatest musicians and Levine producing albums by the likes of Simply Red and Lionel Richie. But Zaire 74 was a singular moment, on par with Woodstock in a more justly written history of international popular music. Planned to coincide with the "Rumble In The Jungle" boxing mega-match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, the festival became its own spectacle when an injury forced the fight to be postponed by a month. The festival organizers (which, to their later regret, peripherally included the fight's promoter and future Trump sycophant Don King) decided to carry on.
As documented in the movie Star Power, James Brown is remembered as the main attraction of the festival, but the lineup was a fever dream of greats, from Miriam Makeba to Celia Cruz to The Pointer Sisters and Bill Withers. Less known is that there were 17 acts from Zaire itself, including Soukou pioneer Tabu Ley Rochereau, Franco & T.P.O.K. Jazz Orchestra, and siblings Abumba and Abeti Masikini (the former with a guitar style described by Levine as "if his guitar ate Jimmy Page"). Even with the success of Star Power and the fight doc When We Were Kings, the recordings of the African musicians who performed remained unreleased and unheard due to a combination of legal wrangles and the general distractions of life. But recently, seemingly on a whim, Levine and Masekela visited the (miraculously) maintained tapes of the festival. The resultant release of the album, Zaire 74, on the UK label Wrasse Records (in collaboration with a reborn Chisa Records), serves as both historical corrective and a truly scorching musical document.
"We had always tried to get more people interested in the music of Africa… This festival was going to be a device for expanding consciousness. It became a lot more than that."
"We were trying to create further consciousness of the music of Africa," Levine says. "A month in Nigeria with Fela Kuti in the summer of '73, that's probably where I came up with the unconscious idea of doing this. We had always tried to get more people interested in the music of Africa [with Chisa]—South Africa in particular. We were getting nowhere really. We had Grazing In The Grass, and we had a lot of really great records that we made, but it was difficult. But this festival was going to be a device for expanding consciousness. It became a lot more than that."
Levine was gracious enough to discuss the release of the live album with me over the phone. Talking to him was like talking to a Steely Dan character with a moral compass: He more than witnessed pivotal moments of pop and world history, and he reminisced with smoke-toned humor. He painted a wonderful picture of a time when there was a balance of international influences, before technology and capitalism made commodification and cultural domination the shadow concerns they are today. As he told me at the end of our talk, "Musicians have a way of taking influences and putting it into their music. Record companies have a way of trying to impose their music on new audiences. So there's a difference."
Noisey: Tell me about the impetus for Zaire 74, both as festival and then as album.
Stewart Levine: There had never been remotely like it in any way. It was 1974, so there was hardly any consciousness of African music in the first place, let alone a festival, which was part of the reason we decided to do it. The original reasoning was to further the consciousness in the world in regards to African music.
With all those documentaries coming out, with regards to the Rumble In the Jungle, and all the American acts, we had neglected to even listen to the recordings of these staggeringly great performers. So when we heard them, about a year or so ago, we were blown away. So why hide them?
It wasn't disputes with Don King that had kept these from being released in the 70s?
Don King just tagged along. He was supposed to have a small percentage, 10 percent of the film project. Masekela and I created the festival to go along with the fight and secured the financing to present the festival and to film it and to record it. We got the money out of Liberia. We knew some people in Liberia, and they put up a million and a half dollars and we proceeded. To get the rights to do that we gave Don King 10 percent. When it was over, he got amnesia, and we were out and he was in. So when we came back to America with all the footage and all the tapes, I was just like, "Fuck it. Enough. I don't ever want to deal with this guy again or even see him." He was such a pig. We just decided to not fight the battle. In fact, we gave our share to Leon Gast, the director, because he was laboring, trying to make it into a film for 20 years. He was fighting in litigation with King and other people, and I just didn't want the battle.
There's something profoundly frustrating about that. There's no huge profit margin in projects like this.
There's no profit! That ended a long time ago. Leon got control, with the help of David Sonnenberg, his lawyer at the time and very successful manager of music acts like The Black Eyed Peas, The Fugees, and countless others. I would say in the early 90s, we could have at that time released the music. When When We Were Kings came out, the music was wonderful but there wasn't really any representation of African performers. We understand that, under the considerations of the fight.
Then Soul Power came out, and that was directed by Jeffrey Levi-Hinte. That focused more on the performers, but even then there was the consideration of: Who the fuck are these people? When you have James Brown, with all due respect, Franco (and T.P.O.K.) is going to be an opening act, and that wasn't what the festival was. It wasn't designed for these artists to be opening acts. So it was never a record. When those movies came out, we weren't into it as a commercial venture, so we weren't trying to put the music out at those times. We could have done this earlier, but we just didn't.
Then one day, a Christmas ago, we're sitting around—Hugh lives in Johannesburg, but he was my guest in LA—and we're hanging around, talking, and we realized we'd never even heard the recordings. We had been too busy running the festival or whatever was going on. If you watch the movies you can see how crazy it was. So we got the tapes and opened them up, and we were blown away. So that's when we decided to try to find a proper home to release it.
The sound quality is fantastic. What were the logistics of recording the performances?
I am a record producer, so that's the one area I did know about; the filming we brought in people who knew about that. We just put a studio in trunks and shipped it to Zaire, which sounds easier than it was. We also moved 50,000 pounds of equipment to build a stage, the largest stage that had ever been made. That was done by Chipmunk, who was kind of famous as the voice of Woodstock. He was a friend, as he'd been lighting director for Miriam Makeba since the early 60s, and we'd known her for that long. In fact, she was married to Masekela. So we just got the professionals from all places to do what they do.
In terms of recording we put together a very simple, obviously analog, 16 track setup. If we look back at recording history, 16 track was the absolute best recording format there ever was. As soon as we jumped to 24 track it was never as good. The quality of the 16 track tape was the best. We recorded it the way I recorded. I was into R&B and love R&B records, so we recorded it very tight: tight miking, right up to the instruments rather than try to recreate something with a lot of ambience like you were in the audience. I choose to record it and mic as if you were right in front of the musicians. That's why it sounds so good. Recorded really punchy, hardly any leakage, cheap microphones—short 57/58, basically PA mics that don't lie. They just pick up what's in front of them. When we put the tapes up, even we were stunned with how good it sounded.
"This is meant to be a record. People ask if there's going to be film. No. There were two films. This a record. Close your eyes and picture yourself in Zaire."
We mixed it in a studio in my home, and my son, Sonny Levine, who's a great producer in his own right, he mixed it with Masekela and me. We kind of just made it sound the way we thought it should sound—punchier and with the physicality it had in person. Usually, in those days, these bands were recorded, and it would all be a big wash. You wouldn't hear the attack of the instruments. The guitar playing is shocking, and so is the drumming. All of it. The drums are in your face. But we chose to mix it in such a way where it's punchy and happening. Not like a now record but like a 70s record. That was a golden age of recording. Part of it was due to the equipment at that time being 16 track and not a lot of electronics. The more electronics you get into, each of the channels is loaded with all these effects, and it just deteriorates from the sound. So it was pretty pure. We used almost no reverb in mixing it. We were trying to get to the idea that—look, at Woodstock, five years prior to that, although it was an iconic event, the recordings sound like dog food.
When we opened it up, we were surprised by the performances. We weren't surprised by the sound. I always knew it would be good. The movies sound good as well, James Brown and them. But even more so on this record 'cause I didn't mix the film recordings, and they were meant for film. This is meant to be a record. People ask if there's going to be film. No. There were two films. This a record. Close your eyes and picture yourself in Zaire.
A friend told me it reminded him of the first Crosby Stills and Nash album. Which is a pretty weird thought. But he was saying that the CSNY record is quintessentially California, and, in his mind, this album is quintessentially Congolese. So I thought that was an interesting analogy.
Have you been able to get in touch with artists on the record?
Unfortunately all the name artists—not the individual musicians, but the name artists—all of them are dead. We were at a loss as to who was in all these bands. These bands had a lot of people going through them, and we didn't even know the titles of some of these songs! So we set aside a fund for anyone who comes forward and actually owns this stuff. We hope that people show up and say, "Hey that's me!" We don't know. But we didn't let that stop us because our intention was to pay anyone who's supposed to be paid. Everybody was paid to play, and also paid to make a record, so it's not like they weren't paid. It's just that we don't know where they are and if they still exist. There's a very bad history in the late 70s in the Congo. The country went through terrible, terrible times. Unfortunately so many of these people have passed. Hopefully the ones still alive will find us. We'd be glad to have them find us.
The other side is that there might be a line-up of a lot of phonies, but we know that game. We didn't omit information; we just didn't have it. When we have it, we'll take care of everybody who needs taking care of. Like you said earlier, we're not talking about tons of money.
The only jarring thing about the album is the repeated dedications to Mobutu, knowing now what's going to happen to the country.
Yeah, it's incredible. If you listen Makeba on the song "West Wind," where she sings and does a shout out to all the African leaders, from Idi Amin to Sadat, and everyone else, and Mobutu countless times. She names all the existing leaders of these countries. It was a hopeful time in Africa at the time, you see? You must remember that in 1974, Africa as a postcolonial continent was, at most, 15 years old. And although Mobutu was tyrant—and I don't want to get too political, but here we go—although he was a tyrant and he was a bad guy, nothing I can say that's nice about him except that maybe he made Trump look good, you know? But subsequent his demise, 6 million people died. So it brings up the same old question: Was Iraq better when Hussein was in? It doesn't mean he was good—far from it—but at least there was some kind of stability. I don't mean to advocate his ruling. Also, praise songs were a very big thing at the time. To be honest, there were about five or six more songs—maybe ten—and we were going to make the album longer. But there was too much fucking Mobutu in them. We got tired of hearing him praised. So we cut a few songs, not because they weren't groovin' but because we'd had enough of him. The irony is not lost on us, but you must factor in that there was even more bloodshed after he left, so… This is not something I have an answer for.
No I get it. Historical allowances need to be made for people to be hopeful.
At least I know you listened to it. So, when we came back, we closed down Chisa and started our own lives. I became an independent record producer, and Huey became Huey. But we still speak every day. He's in Johannesburg. We're still best friends. We closed down Chisa in 1974, and we reopened it for this. Zaire 74 is with the wonderful label Wrasse Records, but Chisa is back, the logo and everything. There's something beautiful about that.
Zachary Lipez is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.