MUSIC began to fade for Manu Dibango with the outbreak of Coronavirus disease 2019 more referred to as COVID-19. No longer will the world hear the live sound of the music legend’s saxophone and vibraphone.
The Cameroonian born Dibango, known as the Father of funk style of music covered a range of styles, from traditional African roots music to jazz, Congolese rumba soul, Afrobeat, reggae, gospel, French chanson, salsa and solo piano.
His 1972 hit track Soul Makossa, launched him into the international limelight. “Soul Makossa” became a hit in New York after DJ David Mancuso started playing the track at his Loft parties. Decades later, different artists remixed the hit song.
Not many people knew that Michael Jackson’s use of the refrain “mama-say, mama-sa, ma-makossa”, from his “Wanna Be Starting Something’ song from his 1982 album, Thriller was from the song ‘Soul Makossa.’ Dibango filed a lawsuit in 2009, saying Michael Jackson had stolen a hook from his song, Soul Makossa, for his world’s best-selling album, Thriller.
Jackson admitted to borrowing the line and settled the case out of court. The Cameroonian musician sued the American megastar; Jackson settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money. In 2007, Rihanna sampled Jackson’s version of the “Soul Makossa” line on her song “Don’t Stop the Music.”
The Saxophonist and songwriter who was also a consummate keyboard player once said, “What is special is that Africa has a long historical relationship with sound and a communion between sound and the visual stronger than in any other culture. The sound carries the rhythm, and the movement creates the images. The way an African moves compared with the environment is different from the western conception.”
The music star recorded, toured worldwide and collaborated with many famed international artists, over a long career, including US pianist, Herbie Hancock, Fela Kuti., Art Blakey, Don Cherry, Sly and Robbie, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour, Hugh Masekela and King Sunny Adé.
He was born Emmanuel N’Djoke Dibango in Douala, in French-administered Cameroon on December 12, 1933. His father was a civil servant, his mother, a fashion designer; both parents were devout protestants who disapproved of secular music. Manu received encouragement from the musical director of his church choir, and surreptitiously broadened his musical perspective with a bamboo flute and a home-made guitar.
In 1941, after being educated at his village school, Dibango was accepted into a colonial school, near his home, where he learned French. In 1944, he was in the school choir for the state visit of General Charles de Gaulle to Cameroon. In 1949, his parents sent him to France to study and, so that he could return as an administrator, like his father and as an incentive, promised to pay for music lessons.
Dibango paid for his initial rent in Europe with three kilograms of coffee. His parents sent him abroad to study philosophy, but instead, he fell in love with American jazz. In France, he met Francis Bebey, another music student from his native Douala, the duo formed a band and began to experiment with different modern instruments, such as the piano and the saxophone. Bebey, would become a novelist and musicologist, with whom Dibango played classical and jazz pieces, The music icon was considered too old to take up the violin, his preferred instrument, Dibango studied classical piano for four years.
Dibango took an interest in saxophone while on holiday in 1953 after a friend lent him a saxophone, He took to the instrument, enrolling for two years of private tuition. After doing the rounds of French jazz clubs, he moved to Belgium, where his soulful style attracted the owner of the Bantou club. Joseph Kabasele, the founding father of modern Congolese music, whose band, African Jazz, spearheaded a musical revolution in Africa signed up Dibango.
When Dibango started performing in cabarets and jazz clubs in 1956, his family cut off his allowance. By the late 1960s, he was leading his own band in Paris. In Brussels, he also met his future wife Marie-Josee (known as Coco), whom he married in 1957.
In 1959, when Kabasele wanted to record the pan-African anthem Independence Cha Cha Cha, he invited Dibango to the Congolese capital, Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), to work with him. Dibango traveled to what was then Congo, now Zaire, to spend a month with the band. Instead, he stayed for two years. They made many hit records for the Ngoma label in the prevailing rumba style.
He returned to France in the early 1960s, and by the late 1960s, he was leading band in Paris. From 1970, he began to forge a career as a significant solo artist. Recorded in 1971 but released in 1972, Soul Makossa skyrocketed him to international fame. Soul Makossa,” a mixture of jazz, Makossa, and soul music ultimately marked the turning point in Dibango’s career.
In 1973, Dibango’s Soul Makossa made the American Top 40 selling more than 100,000 copies in the United States despite negligible radio air play. Dibango was a household name in Europe when the album was released in 1972. Though best known for “Soul Makossa” he also has the 1984 hit, “Abele Dance,” to his acclaimed international career.
Besides his stage and studio activities, Dibango composed music for film and television. In 1990, he published his autobiography, Three Kilos of Coffee with Danielle Rouard. He remained active in music until he succumbed to the coronavirus pandemic on March 24 at a hospital in the French capital, Paris. He was aged 86.
Tributes have poured in for Dibango, Grammy award winner, Angelique Kidjo wrote via her Instagram, “…Dear Manu, you’ve always been there for me from my beginnings in Paris to this rehearsal just two months ago.
You are the original giant of African music and a beautiful human being. This coda of #SoulMakossa is for you!”
Senegalese artist, Youssou Ndour called Dibango a “genius” on the saxophone and described him as a “big brother, a pride for Cameroon and all of Africa.”
The music legend often used his music and his influence to garner support for various humanitarian causes. UNESCO recognised his contributions to the development of music as well as his cultivation of cross-cultural dialogue through the arts and named him UNESCO Peace Artist of the Year in 2004.
He was unhappy to be classified as an African musician, preferring to be considered as an artist, and an African.”As you are African, they expect you always to play African. Forget that.
You’re not a musician because you’re African. You’re a musician because you are a musician. Coming from Africa, but first, musician,” he said.