curiously, two of the finer albums of young 1997 are both soundtracks to documentaries set in Africa. First there was "Mandela," with its rich selection of surging voices before and after the South African president's imprisonment. Now we have "When We Were Kings," which mostly includes African-American stars performing live as part of the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Zaire.
There are several unexpected twists here. Not only did the 32-year old Ali topple the supposedly invincible 25-year-old Foreman, but the documentary itself took 22 years to rebound from the collapse of its financial backing. And today, everyone should know that the "Rumble in the Jungle" was an example of a good thing organized by bad people: The thuggish promoter Don King launched his career with the "Rumble," and the thuggish dictator of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, bankrolled the fight with $10 million taken directly from the pockets of the populace.
The sordid future reputations of some main players could not affect the main events, however, which included a massive concert series as prelude to the match. The lineup features a fistful of vibrant live performers at or near the height of their powers. B.B. King absolutely roars through "Sweet Sixteen," customizing the lyrics for the occasion (he reminds the love interest of the title she was "fresh from your Homeland" when he met her). The Jazz Crusaders are at their most Sly-and-the-Family stoned on "Put it in Your Pocket," and while the Spinners were not as widely appreciated live by white audiences, their "I'll Be Around" verifies that their harmonies could be tough in person as well as gorgeous in the studio. Still, it was the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, who commanded the universe in concert, as he always did in those days. The bottomless audience appreciation for his dynamics has to be heard with awe.
New music composed for the soundtrack wins two out of three rounds. The Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes and Forte get together for a thoughtful-rapper festival on "Rumble in the Jungle," which sets the scene and offers tribute, confirming that the display of black kinship and solidarity that Ali particularly had hoped for has not been forgotten. For the title song, Brian McKnight and Diana King deliver a carefully retro Afro-soul duet with more bite than the Babyface fare that dominates pop radio now. The only track that takes a dive is the techno whammer "I'm Calling (Say It Loud)" by Zelma Davis (ex-C&C Music Factory), both a lackluster composition and way out of any context. It's also a howling shame that none of the 20 African acts that traipsed across the stage in the original concerts make an appearance, though the inclusion of several of Ali's politically incorrect, rhyming one-liners was smart. Overall, "When We Were Kings" offers a bright moment in sport and international culture, preserved better than anyone imagined.