Summer of Soul in Harlem a wow

In his Downtown column this week, Stevie G describes the Summer of Soul documentary as "an incredible testament to an incredible time"
Summer of Soul in Harlem a wow

Nina Simone was one of many great performers at the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, the same year as Woodstock.

The eagerly awaited Summer of Soul documentary briefly touched down in Cork for a quick run in Mahon Point Omniplex recently. Myself and a small gathering of music fans made our way to the cinema on a boiling hot evening in July, and for a few hours we were all transported to the incredible Harlem Cultural Festival. This festival has been largely bypassed in pop culture history, despite coming at a pivotal time in music history, and at a time when Harlem and America and the world itself were at a crucial crossroads.

The hype went to the Woodstock festival which took place pretty much simultaneously, but the line-up of artists who attended the Harlem festival over its six-week stretch was incredible too. Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, David Ruffin, Hugh Masakela, Ray Baretto and B.B. King were all there, and many were at the peak of their musical and cultural powers.

Forty hours of footage was recorded but later placed in a basement, and for nearly half a century it sat idle. Producer Robert Fyvolent eventually bought the rights, and the documentary, produced by Questlove, has finally reached the masses. It’s an incredible testament to an incredible time.

The 60’s were ending and the optimism of the civil rights era had given way to a much darker perspective among blacks and other marginalised communities. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the Kennedy Brothers had all been shot dead, and it was the Black Panthers movement that now gathered pace. As America sent astronauts into space and more troops into Vietnam, the Panthers called for black self-determination and self-reliance, as well as a militant approach to blackness.

There was something in the air that summer, and these performances capture the mood of Harlem over these few weeks. Comedian Redd Foxx offers a lighter touch in one of the documentary's most memorable cut-offs; “The black man's going to Africa, the white man going to the moon. I’m gonna just stay here in Harlem with the Puerto Ricans and have me some fun!”. Afro-centric viewpoints were of much more relevancy to the average attendee of this festival than the moon landing, which happened on one of the days of the festival.

Some of the interview footage juxtaposed mostly white people celebrating this event with mostly blacks pleading indifference, and pointing to the social problems that were sweeping New York at the time. Gil Scott Heron would record 'Whitey on the Moon' soon after, and watching this documentary in the 2021 month where our own billionaires were heading for space, you couldn’t help but marvel at the timing. For many of the black and hispanic performers in Summer of Soul, the only galaxy of escape came through music.

This festival looks largely feel-good on the surface, and it was full of joy, but the interviews and performances hint that even darker times were on the way. New York City became ravaged by drugs, unemployment and social problems in the 70’s, and a new kind of music was created not far from the beautiful Harlem on film here. It had its roots in all of this music though, and you can feel the hip-hop in the energy on display from the likes of Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Sly Stone and more.

The performances are all masterful and the superb editing allows it to flow effortlessly between social commentary and simply just fantastic music. It’s all intertwined anyway, and even the more regimented Motown style acts such as David Ruffin and Gladys Knight bring a swagger that’s as infectious now as it must have been then.

The highlights are far too many to mention, but Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach and Nina Simone all killed it, but all of the footage and performances are amazing. Stevie Wonder was 19 and at a crossroads. He had the world at his feet but you could almost sense that he wanted to do more. It wasn’t long after this that he took control of his own career, and changed the face of music forever with a string of albums that is arguably the best ever run in music history. Marvin, Curtis, Sly and others followed suit. Summer of Soul is an incredible document of some of the greatest music of all time.

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