Manu Dibango, African jazz legend who inspired Michael Jackson and Rihanna, dies of coronavirus at 86

The Cameroonian saxophonist and 'Soul Makossa' musician is credited for revolutionizing the African music industry


                            Manu Dibango, African jazz legend who inspired Michael Jackson and Rihanna, dies of coronavirus at 86
Manu Dibango (Getty Images)

Manu Dibango, legendary Cameroonian saxophonist and pioneer of Afro-Jazz music, died on March 24 at a hospital in Paris after contracting COVID-19. He was 86. His representatives made the announcement through his official Facebook page. 

"It is with deep sadness that we announce you the loss of Manu Dibango, our Papy Groove," the statement read. "His funeral service will be held in strict privacy, and a tribute to his memory will be organized when possible."

Dibango was hospitalized on March 18 after contracting the virus. People have been asked to send their condolences by email as public gatherings in France have been limited to 20. Due to the lockdown to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus, only family members or those close to the deceased are allowed to attend the funeral.

Dibango is internationally best known for his 1972 song 'Soul Makossa'. He penned the infamous lyrics 'ma-ma-se ma-ma-sa ma-ma-ko-ssa', in the soulful funk hit accompanied by old acoustic saxophone solos. His entire discography is essential to the neo-African culture and his music has transcended time and culture.

Humble beginnings

Emmanuel Dibango was born on December 12, 1933, in Douala, a French-administered port city in Cameroon. He was raised in a religious Protestant family and he started his musical legacy with hymns, an AFP news report suggests. Yet, his musical influences varied as he grew as an artist and expanded his comprehensive style.

"I'm a child raised in the 'Hallelujah'," he said of his beginning. 

His father was a civil servant and hailed from Yabassi. His mother, a fashion designer, was of the Douala ethnic group.

"I play different kinds of music before playing my own. I think that that's very important to play other people's music," he said in a 2017 interview with BBC. "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 musician. Coming from Africa, but first, musician."

At age 15, he was sent to France where his parents expected him to study and return an administrator, much like his father. Instead, he learned to play various instruments like the piano, mandolin, vibraphone, saxophone and even became a part of a band. He played 'When the Saints Go Marching' before his first audience — his classmates.

Instead of pursuing philosophy as his father had intended for him, Dibango took on music and became infatuated with American jazz. He failed his high school exams and took up performing in nightclubs in Belgium instead, said NPR.  His parents were disappointed by his decision to pursue music as a profession and disowned him.

Musical career

Cameroonian-French saxophonist Manu Dibango performs at the Franck Sorbier Spring Summer 2018 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 24, 2018, in Paris, France (Getty Images)

Dibango traveled to Brussels to meet Joseph 'Grand Kallé' Kabasele, a Congolese rumba maestro. The Congolese rumba was a blend of American jazz, Cuban rhythms and lively African sounds, which eventually became the essence of Dibango's music. He was hired by Kabasale to play the saxophone in his group, 'African Jazz'. While part of the entourage, Dibango traveled to Congo (present-day Zaire) to spent a month with the band. He ended up staying two years, long enough to open his own club in the city of Léopoldville (now Kinshasa). He also met his wife Marie-Josee (known as Coco) in Brussels and they married in 1957.

In the late '60s, Dibango moved to France where he began to evolve as an artist and in the early '70s worked towards building a solo career. But his single 'Soul Makossa' in 1972 catapulted him to international fame. The chorus of the song was a sort of branding for 'Makossa', a funky, jazz-like dance genre that Dibango created. Kossa means 'dance' in his mother's native language of Douala.

'Soul Makossa' became a part of the 1970s American culture when David Mancuso, a DJ based in New York City, found the record in a West Indian store in Brooklyn and began playing it at his infamous club parties. The subsequent response was for the club-goers and music lovers to get their hands on a copy of the album and in 1972, Dibango's original composition was licensed by Atlantic Records. It became the first chart-topping song by an African artist on the American Top 40.

Following this musical milestone, he collaborated with many famed international artists — Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Don Cherry, Sly and Robbie, Peter Gabriel, King Sunny Adé, Paul Simon, Youssou N'Dour, Hugh Masekela and Fela Kuti.

'Soul Makossa' went on to become a prominent addition to American music, especially after it was adapted by artists including Michael Jackson and Rihanna in their songs 'Wanna be Startin' Somethin' (Thriller, 1982) and 'Please Don't Stop the Music' (Good Girl Gone Bad, 2007), respectively. But the Cameroonian saxophonist sued Michael Jackson for the unwarranted use of the lyrics and Jackson settled the lawsuit out of court for a sum of money. 

Rihanna sampled Jackson's version of the 'Soul Makossa' lyric in 2007 upon Jackson's permission. Two years later, Dibango sued Rihanna and Jackson again in France, but his case failed because of the earlier settlement.

Legacy

Dibango was multifarious, having played shows across venues worldwide until quite recently. He leaves behind a great legacy, having been the first to seamlessly blend traditional African music with jazz to birth a genre of its own and constantly expanding his musical boundaries throughout his prolific career. 

In 2004, he was appointed as UNESCO Artist of Peace for his musical accomplishments, efforts in fighting for artists' copyrights and advocating peace in Africa.

His wife, Coco, passed away in 1995. Dibango is survived by his three children — daughters Anya and Georgia, and son Michel.

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