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Soul Power

A 1974 concert celebrating African and African-inspired music finally hits the screen

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It was a concert born of big ideas and easy opportunism. With African Americans embracing their roots in the mother country -- and newly liberated African nations on the rise -- why not stage a concert celebrating traditional and contemporary African music, and such far-flung offshoots as R&B, jazz and salsa? It would be a global musical celebration of black power. And what better place than during the run-up to the "Rumble in the Jungle," the much-heralded boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, held in Kinshasa, Zaire? So in 1974, promoters (including the ubiquitous Don King) organized "Zaire 74," a three-day concert and (hopefully) a subsequent film. 

Thirty-five years later, Jeff Levy-Hinte has compiled that film from the outtakes of Leon Gast's 1996 documentary about the bout, When We Were Kings. In that respect, Soul Power serves as a companion piece to that documentary and is a must for Ali completists. The Greatest is much in evidence, and as the cameras roll, so his mouth, offering opinions on subjects from America's racial inequities to his surprise at the modernity of Kinshasa. 

Music fans will enjoy the onstage action, with top-of-their-game performances from The Spinners, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, The Crusaders, Manu Dibango, and Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars, among others. Soul Brother No. 1 James Brown gets extra time -- as well as the first and the last word. (Levy-Hinte chose not to provide titles for the performers, but everybody is identified during the credits.) Some of the vértité-style concert camerawork is clunky, but the music -- and costumes -- more than make up for it. 

To stretch out the star performances, Soul Power also hits the streets, where unidentified locals appear ready to turn a little percussion into an impromptu party. None of these people are interviewed, sadly. Likewise, today's viewer will have to fill in his own background about Zaire's troubled history.

Throughout, there's no mistaking the excitement and collective sense of pride that the concert and Rumble brought to both the streets of Kinshasa and the chartered jets of the celebrities. But from our vantage point, we see the hopeful future these participants envision through a glass darkly. There are tough times ahead for Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and other post-colonial African nations, some of the performers, and the black-power movement. But for three steamy nights in the summer of 1974, soul power reigned -- and 35 years later, there's a time capsule you can groove to. Starts Fri., Sept. 4. Squirrel Hill

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