Five decades later, Black Woodstock is back on track

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The year 1969 can evoke two particularly lasting memories of great world events. The first, of course, is the Apollo 11 mission which on July 20 landed men on the moon for the first time. And the second is the three-day music festival in August, known as the Woodstock Rock Festival, recognized as a landmark event in the popular music and counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

There was, however, a third event that year that perhaps should have attracted at least as much attention as Woodstock. I’m talking about the Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place in this neighborhood of New York.

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The festival, which was held in a space now known as Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem over six weekends in July-August, brought together over 300,000 people, featured a who’s who of mostly African-American musicians and Latinos, and was considered a landmark event in the history of black culture. It was even called the Black Woodstock.

But for over 50 years, it was largely ignored by the mainstream media. More than 40 hours of footage, spanning the entire festival, and shot by late television producer Hal Tuchin on second-hand cameras, had languished in his basement since 1969, after several major networks rejected the proposals. production and dissemination of the event.

Until this summer, when Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer and co-founder of Philadelphia hip hop group The Roots, resurrected him in a new feature documentary, Summer of the soul (… Or, when the revolution couldn’t be televised). The two-hour film (streaming on Disney + Hotstar in India) documents the performances of artists such as a young Stevie Wonder (he was 19), BB King (then 44, but already a blues legend), Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight, the Staples Singers (including Mavis Staples), jazz drummer Max Roach, David Ruffin, former Temptations frontman, vocal group Fifth Dimension, and many more ‘others.

The festival has been largely ignored despite taking place at a very important time in black history. It took place shortly after the assassinations of two black activists: less than a year before the festival, Martin Luther King Jr had been killed; and in 1965, Malcolm X was shot. The African-American community is at a turning point, the movement to assert its identity and culture is gaining ground. It was also a period, well documented in regards to the other Woodstock festival, where dissonance and rebellion was in the air: Richard Nixon was in the White House and America’s division involvement in the Vietnam War was at its peak.

The Woodstock Festival, which featured an array of famous (and mostly white) performers, received massive publicity, mostly due to the widely released, Oscar-winning film. Shot with a budget of $ 600,000 (approx. ??4.4 crore now), it grossed $ 50 million in box office revenue. The Harlem Festival was almost forgotten. The footage was shot on a shoestring budget and, according to the late Tuchin, the lack of equipment and light forced him to adopt innovative measures, such as orienting the scene to the west.

Fortunately, it was a festival in the light of day and the images Questlove worked with are of high quality. Tightly edited and interspersed with interviews and commentary from some of the performing artists who are still around (Mavis Staples, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, etc.), the film documents one of the most important eras in history. des Noirs and is an essential viewing for music historians and music lovers.

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The film works on several levels. First and foremost, of course, is the music itself. The cathartic and therapeutic gospel singing of Mahalia Jackson, then almost 60 years old, and her duet with Staples; the young (and already successful) Wonder, then at a crossroads, experimenting with styles; the bouncy R&B of Gladys Knight and the Pips as they play I heard it through the vineyard; and the Fifth Dimension, composed of black musicians, with music that was like a bridge between white pop and black soul. For them, performing in Harlem was like being accepted by their own people. Not to mention the groundbreaking set from Sly and the Family Stone, which appeared in psychedelic outfits, featuring (unusual for a Harlem concert) a trumpeter and white musicians on drums and sax, and ended their set with an exuberant interpretation of I wanna take you higher.

Then there’s the surge of assertiveness and radicalization from the black community – palpable throughout the film, including Nina Simone’s spirited reading of a poem by David Nelson that read: Are you ready, blacks? / Are you ready to do what is necessary? / Are you ready to smash white things, burn buildings, are you ready? / Are you ready to build black things?

Unlike Woodstock, which also hit the headlines for drug addiction, torrential rains, chaos and food shortages, the Harlem festival went off smoothly. The politically radical Black Panthers were in charge of security; the crowds were peaceful, the music lively. It marked a cultural turning point that perhaps would have gone unheard of without the film we can now see.

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan


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