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The Zaire 74 festival prior to the Ali-Foreman fight

Updated: Dec 20, 2023


Franco, Miriam Makeba, Tabu Ley Rochereau, The Spinners, James Brown, B.B. King and Abeti Masikini at the "Zaire 74" music festival in Kinshasa. (September 22-24, 1974).

Franco, Miriam Makeba, Tabu Ley Rochereau, The Spinners, James Brown, B.B. King and Abeti Masikini at the "Zaire 74" music festival in Kinshasa. (September 22-24, 1974) | Credit: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte/Soul Power/Leon Gast

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From September 22 to 24, 1974, the historic Zaire 74 festival was hosted in Kinshasa, featuring an exceptional lineup of both African and American musicians, all gathered to promote the monumental fight between boxing legends George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.


Originally planned for September 25, the highly anticipated bout had to be rescheduled to October 30 due to an injury sustained by reigning world champion George Foreman during a sparring session with his partner Bill McMurray. The news of the postponement reached the American stars who were en route to Zaire on a DC-8 aircraft. Among the notable names on board were James Brown, B.B. King, the Fania All Stars, and Celia Cruz, all heading to Kinshasa to provide musical accompaniment for this momentous event.

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James Brown, Bill Withers and The Spinners in Kinshasa for the "Zaire 74" music festival. (September 1974) | Credit: Howard L. Bingham/Jeffrey Levy-Hinte/Soul Power/Leon Gast/Lynn Goldsmith

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Despite the setback, legendary promoter Don King and Zaire's esteemed President Mobutu Sese Seko decided to keep the talented artists in Kinshasa, organizing a series of captivating concerts to fill the void left by the postponed “fight of the century”. For three unforgettable days, the Stade du 20 Mai (Tata Raphaël) in the north of Kinshasa was transformed into an enchanting musical stage.


The concerts not only entertained the local audience but also captivated tourists who had flocked to witness the clash of titans. As highlighted by journalist Vladimir Cagnolari, the festival served as a momentous occasion for reuniting and fostering cultural exchange between Africans and their Afro-American counterparts.

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Spectators during the "Zaire 74" festival at the Stade du 20 Mai. / Promoter Don King with President Mobutu and Mohamed Ali at the presidential complex. (1974) | Credit: Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Focus on Sport/Jeffrey Levy-Hinte/Soul Power/Leon Gast/Lynn Goldsmith

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Kicking off the splendid performances was The Spinners, a five-person Detroit-based group renowned under the Motown banner, who mesmerized the crowd with their soulful American sound of the 1970s. Their harmonious presentation, adorned in captivating blue and white sequinned attire, perfectly complemented their percussion and brass, accompanied by their soulful voices from major record labels. The legendary B.B. King also graced the festival with his blues anthems, followed by the heartfelt ballads of Bill Withers, which reportedly left a profound impact on the festival-goers.


The festival also showcased remarkable performances by celebrated Zairean stars, including Tabu Ley Rochereau, Franco Luambo, Lita Bembo, Abeti Masikini, and others, as they revisited their chart-topping hits, adding to the vibrant atmosphere. Additionally, South African superstar Miriam Makeba enchanted the audience with her captivating melodies in her native language.

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Some of the artists who performed at the "Zaire 74" music festival in Kinshasa. (September 22-24, 1974) | Credit: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte/Soul Power/Leon Gast

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The charismatic Celia Cruz left an indelible mark with her exuberant percussive beats, igniting an irresistible desire for the audience to dance along joyfully, as reported by Mediapart. However, it was James Brown who stole the show, earning his title as "The Godfather of Soul" as he delivered an electrifying performance, showcasing his iconic splits, and spontaneously spreading happiness throughout the event, even immortalizing a moment on film.


Remarkably, each day, over 80,000 people eagerly attended the festivities, playing a significant role in building anticipation for the eventual Ali-Foreman duel that took place in October. The Zaire 74 festival will forever be remembered as a cultural extravaganza that not only promoted the legendary boxing match but also united people through the universal language of music and dance, leaving an enduring legacy of celebration and unity.

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Henock Kalala - (LEBEAUZAÏRE)

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LEBEAUZAÏRE - (YouTube)

James Brown sings "The Payback" at the Stade du 20 Mai (Tata Raphaël) during the "Zaire 74" music festival in Kinshasa. (September 22-24, 1974) | Credit: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte/Soul Power/Leon Gast

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