By Daniel Margolis | Published January 2022
The Harlem Cultural Festival ran from late June to late August in 1969, and was a stacked deck of then-current talent drawn from jazz, blues and more, presented as a series of concerts in New York City. All of this is the focus of renowned drummer and all-over hyphenate Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s new documentary Summer Of Soul, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and is streaming now on Hulu. The soundtrack to that film is out this week.
Summer Of Soul describes the festival as “Black Woodstock” from the outset, hosting “a sea of Black people” — an estimated audience of 300,000. It features footage of performers and audience members that laid dormant for over 50 years, all filmed at Mt. Morris Park in Harlem. While the soundtrack can’t possibly contain everything the film does, Questlove cherry picks its best appearances (within reason — Stevie Wonder’s music was apparently unavailable, and Sonny Sharrock is also absent). It all kicks off appropriately with the Chamber Brothers ripping through “Uptown,” then, just as the festival did, the music goes all over the map. We get blues, soul and R&B from legends like B.B. King, David Ruffin, Gladys Knight & The Pips. We get a big blast of Fania bona fides from Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto, both rivetingly expressive. Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach are practically regal on “Africa.” In the film, they’re depicted as a music power couple, and they sound like it.
The soundtrack goes to church, too, bringing out The Edwin Hawkins Singers, The Staples Singers and Mahalia Jackson. Pops Staples is a revelation, simply tearing his guitar apart.
Thompson wisely saves the main attractions for the end of the album. Sly & The Family Stone turn in superb performances of “Sing a Simple Song” and ”“Everyday People,” and Sly sounds a lot happier to be here than he did at Woodstock right around the same time. The film and recording both remind us that while everything about The Family Stone was great, trumpeter and singer Cynthia Robinson could become the star of the show whenever she wanted.
This all closes out with Nina Simone. In the film, a female audience member says of Simone, “We walked on water” to see her. Well worth it. Simone takes over the festival, practically bashing on her piano in authoritatively leading her band on “Backlash Blues.” Then, here, she introduces “Are You Ready” as a poem written by The Last Poets’ David Nelson, in her words, one of “three black poets or six or maybe 100 in this town.” Over a percussive backdrop, she reads the poem after apologizing for not having memorized it. But despite not being a recitation, it’s rousing, a fitting end to the recording.
The film addresses a context that the album cannot — the then-recent assassinations of MLK and RFK, the Black Panthers (who provided security at the event when the NYPD refused), and, entertainingly, the moon landing, which its commentators have little patience for. “I couldn’t care less about the moon landing,” one says. “Never mind the moon. Let’s get some of this cash in Harlem.”
Fair point, but perhaps it’s for the best that this isn’t present on the album, because what you’re left with is the pure joy of the music, and the connection between the performers and the audience. The movie ends with the film and music industry’s disinterest toward what happened — notice that this soundtrack hasn’t been filling used vinyl crates for decades. Regardless, it’s here now.