Salsa In Africa (Fania All Stars)

In 1974 Don King, bookmaker-turned-boxing promoter & less than 2 years out of prison, was working on his big deal. George Foreman, the 40-0 heavyweight boxing champion was making short work of any challenger, former title holder Muhammad Ali, the most famous sportsman in the world had lost twice since his return to boxing after a 3 year ban for refusing the US’s invitation to join their army in Vietnam. It would be “the fight of the century”, all Don needed was the $10 million to tempt the protagonists into a ring. He found an unlikely sponsor in Mobuto Sese Seko the President of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). The eyes of the world would be on his country & “The Rumble in the Jungle” set for September the 25th.

An injury to Foreman’s hand caused the postponement of the fight for six weeks but Zaire 74, a three day music festival, went ahead. The concert line-ups were curated by South African trumpet player Hugh Masekela & his record producer Stewart Levine. The best home talents , along with international African star Miriam Makeba, were booked along with a stellar selection of African-American artists. The plane to Kinshasa carried James Brown & the J.B.’s, B.B. King, Bill Withers, the Crusaders & the Spinners. Among King’s international investors & facilitators were David Hemmings, the British actor, through his Hemdale Film Corporation & apparently Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator. An original associate of his was Jerry Masucci, NY cop, then lawyer, now founder of the Fania record label. The Fania All Stars, a Salsa supergroup ensemble of some of the best Latin players around, joined the passenger list for the musically packed DC 8 to Zaire.

The All Stars brought along Celia Cruz, the charismatic, Afro-Cuban “Queen of Salsa” who, as a child, had learned the songs of Santeria, a religion derived from Yoruban by the African slave diaspora in Cuba. Exiled from home since 1962, Celia had become a significant representative of the Cuban-American community. Here, singing “Quimbara”, her latest hit, comparing life to dance, in Spanish to a French speaking African audience, we see the Queen in all her glamour & glory. The song was recorded for the “Celia & Johnny” album. Johnny Pacheco is Celia’s bandleader & dancing partner here. Born in the Dominican Republic, the son of a prominent local musician, Johnny had moved to New York when he was 11 years old. As a performer, composer, producer & co-founder of Fania Records Johnny was a central figure in the development & growing popularity of Latin music.

You don’t need an ethnomusicologist to point out the elements of African rhythms in the music of the Caribbean, they came over on the boats involved in a terrible trade in human beings. Drums were banned by the US plantation owners fearing that they carried a language & a message that they couldn’t understand. Those antebellum, antediluvian assholes may have had a point because the percussion on “Ponte Duro” is really saying something. I could list the members of the All Stars present at a momentous concert but would struggle to put faces to the names. The three featured sticksmen though deserve a shout out. Roberto Roena (bongos) led his own star band, Apollo Sound, in Puerto Rico. He later played with Manu Dibango, the Cameroonian saxophonist who was present at Zaire 74. Nicky Marrero, a master of the timbales, was born in the Bronx, New York to a Puerto Rican family & had been playing professionally since he was 14. Ray Barretto (congas) is another New Yorker of Puerto Rican stock. Ray was a big star, when artists across the musical spectrum (or “Sesame Street”) needed a percussionist, he got the call. Individually impressive, together that’s a triple threat trio of energy, showmanship & rhythm.

The progression of Latin music is more complicated than from Rumba to Mamba to Salsa. There’s a whole lot of rhythms in between as Afro-Cuban sounds spread around the Spanish-speaking Caribbean & continental South America before reaching the melting pot of New York’s Latin community. Their clubs were the place to be in the post World War II years the bands jammed & found work with & were influenced by the great Jazz musicians around. In the 1960s a cross-pollination of the sons & daughters of migrants, Nuyoricans, & their Afro-American neighbours in Central Harlem developed into Boogaloo, a Latin fused with R&B which produced many great records & was the very thing in 1969 when Ray Barretto & Mongo Santamaria represented at the Harlem Cultural Festival, the “Summer of Soul”. Here, from that year is Ray’s fantastic “Soul Drummers”. As Celia Cruz would always shout, “Azucar!”.