This week’s release of Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s “Soul Power” marks the third film in recent months to focus on the presence of music in Africa. “Power” joins Sascha Palladino’s Bela Fleck documentary “Throw Down Your Heart” and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love” in showing off Africa’s musical heritage. Documentaries like these are rare. Expressing the uniqueness of the subject matter in his Village Voice review of “Throw Down Your Heart,” Aaron Hillis says, “It’s refreshing to see a doc in Africa that’s not about the heartbreak of HIV and genocide.” Each one of these documentaries has a unique relationship with the continent and its music.
“Soul Power” is the companion piece to the classic Rumble in the Jungle doc “When We Were Kings.” The doc focuses on the three night music festival in Kinshasa, Zaire that due to a partnership with boxing promoter Don King, gained notoriety as being supporting entertainment for the Rumble in the Jungle fight between heavyweight champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali. The brainchild of South African trumpeter/vocalist Hugh Masekela and American music producer Stewart Levine, the festival, Zaire ’74, was a showcase of black music of the time. Performers included James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers, Sister Sledge, and the Fania All-Stars. The concert footage, shot by such legends as Albert Maysles, is, in effect, the outtakes from “When We Were Kings.” Director Levy-Hinte was an editor on “When We Were Kings.” The film stands as a document to the surrounding events of the Rumble in the Jungle and the state of black music in 1974.
Due to its cinéma vérité nature and its situation within a very specific historical moment, the film is a very limited view of “African music” in general. In an interview with Flavorwire, Levy-Hinte was asked if the film was an homage to the time. He responded, “To the time, to the event, to that style of filmmaking. It’s a little bit more looser, more willing to take leaps, and not trying to be rigidly narrative. For me, the primary value was not imparting information about the event. If you want that you can read an article or a book. It’s really about wanting to provide the kind of experience, and to give you a sense of what it was like for the performers, and what it was like for the people who were there to observe it. And for me, that’s what I really tried to accomplish.”
“Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love” is both a biography of the wildly famous Senegalese Sufi Muslim singer and a profile of his days recording the album “Egypt,” which was snubbed in the Muslim world he lives in. The film deals with N’Dour’s fame the world over, especially within Africa. It also follows him in his trials in creating an album that was a celebration of a tolerant, moderate Islam. A true examination of the political and cultural world we are all living in, director Vasarhelyi also lets us in to show today’s cosmopolitan African music. Calling herself a “change the world kind of perosn” in New York Magazine, Vasarhelyi says, “I wish I could say I’ve been following Youssou N’Dour all my life. I haven’t. I discovered him – an African pop star, the Bono of Africa. Youssou is famous everywhere else in the world. He lives so successfully by his convictions, and shows us a very different Islam than what we see in the media.”
The poster to “Throw Down Your Heart” claims that Béla Fleck brings the banjo back to Africa in this documentary. It turns out that the banjo was not a product of the Blue Ridge Mountains, West Virginia, or anything else mentioned in a John Denver song. Fleck hops across Africa collaborating with some of continent’s most talented musicians. Though there’s very little dueling banjos, as the instrument has seen little use in Africa of late, the sounds of Fleck’s banjo resonate with Oumou Sangaré, Bassekou Kouyate, and talented locals. In this film’s case, featuring a renowned American musician and his filmmaker half-brother allow us to see the brilliance of African music today.