You’ll feel the "Soul Power" with Fania on Film

Posted on Jul 14, 2009

I recently was invited to a screening of a powerful new documentary “Soul Power”. This film documents the 1974 three day festival which took place in Zaire, Africa which featured scintillating peformances from James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, The Spinners and last but not least Celia Cruz and the Fania All Stars. The festival took place before the legendary fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (aka “The Rumble In The Jungle”).

I was struck by the segments featuring the Fania All Stars. The joy of an impromptu jam session aboard a plane full of these great musicians with Fania holding court: Johnny Pacheco blowing his flute, Celia Cruz soneando her inspiraciones, Pupi Lagaretta effortlessly playing guajeos on his violin, Yomo Toro strumming his cuatro with BB King looking on with a big smile, Ray Barretto and Nicky Marrero keeping the percussion burning from their plane seats and Ismael Miranda joining in on coro. But that’s not all! The film captures an explosive performance of the entire band performing the Celia and Johnny classic “Quimbara”. Celia looked majestic in her splashy cuban carnaval dress as she connected with her African public through her passionate voice. Pacheco leads this monster of a band with his natural showmanship taking his cue to dance rumba with Celia on-stage. And what a band: Cheo, Lavoe, Santitos Colon, Ismael Quintana, Ismael Miranda, Larry Harlow, Bobby Valentin, Pupi and that fabulous horn section! This leads up to a smokin’ percussion finale featuring Nicky Marrero on timbales, Roberto Roena on bongo and Ray Barretto on congas. Barretto in the heat of a burning solo then jumps up and “dances” with his conga to end the number. Wow! It reminded me of the first time that I caught the Fania All Stars at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1975. The film documents the enthusiasm of all of these great musicians making the connection with Africa.

For the African American musicians, it signified a deep sentiment that they were “home” where they didn’t feel the sting of racism and discrimination. The film primarily focuses on these great entertainers. A confident and wise crackin’ Muhammad Ali lights up the screen with his poignant comments on the difference on the way he is treated in Africa as opposed to America. The other great presence on the screen is the late “Godfather of Soul” James Brown. This film truly demonstrates why he was an international phenomenon and an inspiration through his music.

Another great scene illustrates the universal power of the drum as Ray Barretto and Nicky Marrero play drums on a Zaire street with a group of African drummers. They didn’t need to speak a particular language to talk to each other, the rhythm of the beats they played said it all.