- Colin Patterson
- BBC, Entertainment Correspondent
Summer 1969: Neil Armstrong sets foot on the moon, Woodstock becomes a landmark in the counterculture movement, and Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson and BB King perform for more than 300,000 people at the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Two of these events have graced the covers of 20th century history books ever since. The third has been almost forgotten.
A new and award-winning documentary, The Summer of Soul, sets out to correct what he believes to be a serious cultural error: the fact that what could have been the “Woodstock negro” has been largely ignored for more than half a century.
The director of the film, Ahmir Thompson, also known as Questlove, says the forgetfulness of the Harlem Cultural Festival is part of the “widespread phenomenon of erase black history “.
40 hours of images
Questlove is best known for being the drummer for The Roots, the band that plays on Jimmy Fallon’s American TV show.
He was also a DJ at this year’s Oscars and is a professor at New York University, an expert on the History of Black Music.
Questlove was surprised that he had not heard of this event, one that he now believes to be of great significance.
Speaking passionately from New York, the star explains how in 2017, out of nowhere, two movie producers, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein, offered her 40 hours of filming of this festival, which took place over six Sundays in June to August 1969 at Mount Morris Park in New York.
He is very interested in sharing the story, which was also new to him.
“The Harlem Cultural Festival was an event organized by two gentlemen, Tony Lawrence [quien contrató los números] y Hal Tulchin [quien lo filmó]”, le dice a BBC News.
“In a way they managed to reunite some of the rebels of their time. We are talking about Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & Family Stone, Ray Barretto, Olatunji, Hugh Masekela, Edwin Hawkins Singers, BB King, comedians, politicians, everyone was there. “
“Kept in the basement”
The reason Questlove and so many others never heard of this concert series is that it happened, or rather it didn’t happen afterward.
“The event has been professionally preserved on tape and no producer or medium is interested in seeing it or making it known or distributing it around the world,” he continues.
“So what ends up happening is that this movie stays in the basement for 50 years.”
While Woodstock was immortalized in an Oscar-winning documentary, which helped make it famous around the world, the Harlem Cultural Festival only aired in the form of two one-hour shows with the best parts on a local television station. from New York and were never repeated.
The basement Questlove was talking about belonged to Tulchin, who filmed the event. The television veteran was approached over the years by would-be documentary makers and the tapes were checked into the US Library of Congress, but that led to nothing.
Then, shortly before his death in 2017, Tulchin signed a contract so that the 40-hour recording could be used by the team behind Summer of Soul.
The visuals are remarkable, showing everything from the joy of Stevie Wonder playing a drum solo under an umbrella in the middle of a downpour, to the intensity of the section where Nina Simone asks the audience if she’s “ready to destroy things. of targets, to burn buildings “.
Questlove says that despite never directing before, he was cast because the producers saw him as a storyteller.
“I would say that just coming into contact with the recording took me five months. Five months of constantly having these monitors in my house in every room, my kitchen, my bathroom, my room. I kept them on all the time.”
“That was all I saw. I took notes on everything that gave me goosebumps. And what I ended up doing was healing it, like I was a curator of a show or a DJ.”
Summer of Soul, who won the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary category ofl Festival of Sundance en 2021It is much more than a movie about a concert.
Use the event to examine how far 1969 was a inflection point for black identity.
“Until then we were ashamed to be called Africans,” explains Questlove.
“If you really wanted to call someone an insulting name in the black community, you called him an African, and then you got ready for a fight.”
“That’s how ingrained and that’s how deep that kind of self-hatred was from, you know, centuries ago. And so what ended up happening in 1969 was a paradigm shift“.
And he adds: “A new generation comes along and they just have a new way of thinking, it’s not like the Martin Luther King generation. It’s the Black Panther generation and they call themselves black.”
“I would say that the seeds of Black Joy they were planted in 1969, with our expression, our style, our fashion, our music, our creativity “.
Jimi Hendrix rejected
In a fascinating sequence on July 20, the almost entirely black crowd reveals a complete disinterest in the arrival of Apollo 11 on the Moon, which was happening at the same time.
Of course, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and David Ruffin from The Temptations were on stage, demonstrating a somewhat more elegant footwork than Neil Armstrong’s footsteps.
The other seismic cultural overlap was with the Woodstock Festival, which took place August 15-18. Only one band participated in both events, Sly & Family Stone.
“He used the Harlem culture festival two weeks earlier as a rehearsal,” explains Questlove. “I was debating whether or not I should reflect both performances to show how identical they were.”
Questlove’s investigation also revealed that a Woodstock hit was rejected by the Harlem Cultural Festival, “James Marshall [Jimi] Hendrix”, se ríe.
“I don’t know the exact reasons why he got a no, but he got a no. What he actually ended up doing was becoming the official after-party for at least three of those weeks.”
“He and blues great Freddie King toured a lot of clubs in Harlem. So yeah, we could have had Jimi Hendrix too.”
Other events erased from history
The drummer-turned-director believes there are many more black cultural touchpoints that have been erased from history and are now ready to move into the limelight.
He hopes to contribute to it.
“In the last week alone I have been alerted to five or six other events that are almost the same as this one that the world has never heard of. One particular American university told me, ‘We have 20 hours of this and that.’ And I said, ‘How?’
“So yeah, I hope this movie is a smoke signal,” he says. “This could be my new destination, and I didn’t even know it. But you know, I welcome it.”
A big smile is outlined before repeating: “I welcome you.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.