THE grim toll of the COVID-19 keeps rising across the world. While all lives are equal, one of the highest-profile deaths, at least for Africans and those who love African music and music lovers in general, is that of Emmanuel Dibango N’Djocke, universally known as Manu Dibango.
By Ish Mafundikwa
The Paris-based Cameroonian musician succumbed to the dreaded disease on March 24, aged 86. It had been reported he was infected the week before.
Manu Dibango was a titan of music who effortlessly blended an array of styles. From traditional African roots music to jazz, soul, Afrobeat, reggae, gospel, French chanson, Congolese rumba, and salsa.
Although widely recognised as a saxophonist, Dibango played a variety of instruments including the piano, vibraphone and organ.
Besides being a great musician, Manu was also an amazing human being with a ready laugh. I first met him in the early 1990s when he played at a world music festival in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
I had loved his music over the years, and what cemented my love of it was not his biggest hit ever, the one that announced him to a global audience, the disco-funk classic, Soul Makossa.
My favourite Dibango song will always be the kick-ass From Congo, an instrumental featuring the man on the Hammond organ.
So when I heard he was playing at the festival, along with South Africa’s dub poet Mzwakhe Mbuli and late Pakistani Qawwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, I arranged an interview with his record company and took the train ride from Amsterdam.
I was naturally mesmerised by his performance, the swagger when he held his saxophone on his shoulder like a soldier would carry his rifle.
Above all, he seemed to be having a lot of fun as he had this wide grin on his face throughout the gig.
Since he was headlining, I had to wait until he was done for my interview. It was late, and he was clearly tired, so was I after a whole day of listening to an assortment of some amazing music.
“Come to my hotel at nine tomorrow,” he suggested.
I agreed, but doubted he would be up by that time. I was surprised when I was ushered to his room to find him not only wide awake, but ready for the interview throughout which he smoked a cigarette, ate an apple, and sipped some cognac.
Of course, I was nervous, but he made me feel at ease by his being so down to earth and his deep laugh.
He walked me through his life from Cameroon, which he left at age 15 in 1949.
“My parents sent me to Paris to study philosophy,” he reminisced.
But soon, Dibango, who sang in the church choir back home, discovered jazz and began taking piano lessons.
When his parents got wind of his extracurricular activities, they stopped paying for his tuition.
At first, Dibango tried to study during the day while playing in clubs in the evenings.
However, the pull of music proved too strong, and he ended up playing fulltime, excelling as a saxophonist.
He cited Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, and other jazz artistes as major influences.
But as a foretaste of his refusal to be confined by, and to, a particular genre, he toured with Congolese rhumba artiste Joseph Kabasele in the early 1960s.
At the end of the tour, he moved to Congo with Kabasele and spent a few years there as part of the seminal African jazz.
He then went back to Paris via his native Cameroon, where he set up a club but got his fingers burnt.
“It was not a very good experience; people had a different mentality,” he said of that period of his life.
His big moment came when he released Soul Makossa, which was a B-side to a song celebrating the heroics of the Cameroonian football team at the 1972 African Cup of Nations.
A New York DJ picked it up and started playing it on radio. That exposure led to the song being a mega dancefloor hit, which made it onto the revered Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Soul Makossa introduced Dibango to a more global audience. It was also nominated for a Grammy in the R&B Performance of the Year category.
The song inspired Michael Jackson’s Makossa chant on Wanna Be Startin’ Something. Rihanna also “stole” the chant on Don’t Stop the Music.
Dibango sued both of them for nicking the hook. Jackson settled out of court, but the court rejected his suit against Rihanna as illegitimate.
Ever the modern-day troubadour, Dibango spent time in Jamaica in the late 1970s: “I spent time talking about Africa and ‘reasoning’ with Bob Marley,” he told me.
The sojourn spawned two albums, Gone Clear and Ambassador, which featured an array of Jamaican musicians, including the legendary rhythm section duo Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.
In 1994, Dibango released one of his most ambitious records, the collaborative effort Wakafrika.
I was fortunate to be offered a slot to interview him by his record company when he came to Amsterdam to promote it.
“Wakafrika is a musical safari across Africa covering African standards with artistes that I like who have paid their dues,” he explained.
“I wanted to put this together and see what happens.”
With a list of collaborators reading like a “Who is Who” of African music, he gave new life to some African classics. Wakafrika is a 13-track gem on which Dibango shines as an arranger and musician.
Stand out moments include Toure Kunda’s Emma on which Mali’s Salif Keita sparkles; DRC’s Ray Lema gives Paul Simon/Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Homeless a strong reading and, Benin’s Angelique Kidjo and the late Congolese sapeur Papa Wemba play vocal pin pong on Bebe Manga’s Ami oh.
“I just thought it’s great for us as Africans, as musicians, to do something together. Our politicians have failed us; instead of uniting people, they retreat into their ethnic shells and divide us,” Dibango lamented.
I asked him whether retirement was on the cards at all, and he laughed: “There is no retirement in music, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie played until they died.
It’s only finished when God calls you back.”
God finally called Dibango, but with an extraordinary career that spanned more than 60 years during which he compressed the creative output of several lifetimes, his music will echo through the ages.
He was born on December 12, 1933.