I am surfing the internet, searching
for the original video of “Soul Makossa” and there is none.
I am observing social distancing at my apartment complex in Texas, to prevent myself from catching the Coronavirus. I am also following the news online as the death figures skyrocket worldwide, when I learn that the legendary Cameroonian saxophonist, Manu Dibango is also gone. Cause of death: Covid-19.
Manu Dibango has become the first superstar musician to die from the Corona virus. The reality of the statistics I see online sinks and settles in hard. This is not just a disease of rising numbers. This is a disease that can affect anybody and body you know.
The earliest Youtube video that I
find of Manu performing “Soul Makossa” at a concert is from 1983, ten years after he released the song. He’s wearing a
long, white Agbada and what appears like reading glasses. He picks up
xylophone sticks and goes at the xylophone. The crowd claps and cheers. He then
abandons the xylophone sticks, picks up his saxophone and introduces a female
dancer as the band whips up the beat. As she gyrates around the stage, Manu’s hoarse
voice booms out of the microphone.
“Ma-ma-se. ma-ma-sa, ma-ma-ko-sa.”
The crowd reacts in frenzy at the
wildly popular refrain that has now shaped world music. But the adulation is
not enough for Manu. He kisses his saxophone and starts soloing beautiful notes
on the funk beat with the most powerful of the woodwinds. The crowd rocks to
his groovy tune, beautified by backup vocals in the Duala language. It is a
song that has now become the stuff of legend.
Manu released “Soul
Makossa” in 1973 and it became the first song by an African artist to make
it into the US Billboard Hot 100 chart peaking at number 23..
A few years earlier, a young Michael Jackson was working on what would become the best-selling album of all time, Thriller and he wanted to have the Makossa rhythm infused. The funky rhythms of “Soul Makossa”, was so popular it was played at parties in America and had become a favourite among radio DJs in New York, who played it on heavy rotation. Michael Jackson decided to poach the song for his hit, “Wanna be startin somethin.”
Manu Dibango would institute legal action against Michael and both artistes eventually settled out of court. But the sampling of “Soul Makossa” did not end there. By the time of Manu Dibango’s death, the song had been sampled by 48 artists worldwide, including Rihanna, Jay-Z, Fugees, Black Eyed Peas, Will Smith, Kanye West, Childish Gambino, Jennifer Lopez and many others.
also served the menu which led to the emergence and global consumption of the
Makossa genre from Cameroon. Charles Lembe, Moni Bilé, Ekambi Brillant, Bébé Manga, Ben
Decca, Dina Bell, les Black Styl – the music group which produced Makossa’s
first arranger, Toto Guillaume were among the next generation of artists who
kept the Makossa wheel spinning in slightly different directions from Manu’s Makossa
sound. But his legacy remained intact. Manu’s music was the soundtrack to my childhood and
adolescence. His eclectic saxophone notes and hoarse voice rippled through as signature
tune to almost every program on Cameroonian state television, CRTV
and numerous radio stations around Africa. That also includes the BBC evening
radio program, “Network Africa,” together with his composition for
film and television.
smile and simple style stared down at you
posters on the streets and snack bars of Douala, Yaoundé
and other Cameroonian towns; a krobo head that glittered like the moon,
coupled with that smile. When he was not smiling, his lips were kissing a saxophone
beneath a pair of dark sunglasses.
As much as Manu is
revered as the father of Makossa in Cameroon and one of Africa’s greatest saxophonists,
it is his exactions both in and out of
music that is startling. He was also a philanthropist, singer, composer,
pianist, vibraphonist and xylophonist, whose innovative jazz, rap, gospel,
electro and funk fusions and expansive collaborative work played a significant
role in introducing European and North American audiences to the traditional
and contemporary sounds of West Africa.
He released over
seventy albums and collaborations. His 1994 album “Wakafrika” brought
together African music heavyweights like: Youssou N’Dour, King
Sunny Ade, Salif Keita, Angelique Kidjo, Papa Wemba, Ray Lema and the accapella
group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He often used such musical and personal
influence to garner support for humanitarian causes and he was named UNESCO Peace Artiste of the year in 2004.
Manu’s 1995 album
“Lamastabastani” is a return to his spiritual roots with a mixture of
gospel music and blues. He is quoted as saying,
N’Djocke was born in Douala in 1933 to a musically
inclined Protestant family.
His mother was Douala and his father, Yabassi. He sang in a local church where
his mother was a choir leader and was quickly noticed for his precocious music
talents. In 1949, he was sent to study in France. To the disappointment of his
father, who wanted him to become a medical doctor or lawyer, Manu failed his
high school exams and took up music, performing in nightclubs in Belgium
instead. It was evident that Manu was always interested in breaking boundaries.
His gamble paid off and he became Makossa’s global pioneer. However, since Manu
considered himself a musician first and not just an African musician, he broke
boundaries even further with his wide repertoire and musical experimentation
with numerous genres and artists. It is sadly ironic that he has again broken
boundaries again by becoming the first music superstar to die of Covid-19.
In a short message published on social networks, the family of the music legend announced. “It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of Manu Dibango, our Grandpa Groove, on March 24, 2020 at the age of 86, from the consequences of Covid-19.”