IT was a sign of the times when global music star Manu Dibango succumbed to the COVID-19 pandemic in France on March 24. He was 86. A video recorded two months ago, which showed Beninois artiste Angelique Kidjo and Dibango rehearsing “Soul Makossa,” the 1970s hit song of the legendary Cameroonian performer, was evidence of Dibango’s vitality before he was hit by the coronavirus.
It is a testimony to his musical creativity that his 1972 chartbuster, “Soul Makossa,” got the attention of American pop king Michael Jackson, who Dibango accused of stealing the song’s refrain, “Mama-say, mama-sa, ma-ma-ko-ssa.” The song’s powerful appeal had earned Dibango nominations in the categories Best R&B Instrumental Performance and Best Instrumental Composition at the 16th Grammy Awards in 1974.
Interestingly, he filed a lawsuit in 2009 saying Jackson had used the hook for the hit track ”Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” on the world’s best-selling album, “Thriller,” released in 1982, without his permission. Jackson settled out of court. Apart from earning substantial compensation, Dibango also earned greater esteem as a musician on account of the case.
The range of Dibango’s eclectic music covered traditional African roots music, jazz, soul, Afrobeat, reggae, gospel, French chanson, Congolese rumba, salsa and solo piano. Significantly, he was a founding father of funk. He explained his musical mix thus: “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.”
Dibango was a superlative saxophonist. ”Sax is sexy. I play other instruments too, but my voice sounds best through a saxophone,” he said in an interview last year. He also played the keyboard and vibraphone. His collaboration with several high-profile musicians, including South African jazz phenomenon Hugh Masekela, and Nigerian Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti, reflected his musical genius as well as his class. It is noteworthy that Dibango’s 1994 album “Wakafrika” featured King Sunny Ade, Peter Gabriel, Salif Keita, Papa Wemba and Youssou N’Dour.
Born in Cameroon, Dibango took an interest in music early in his life. He was in the church choir and the school choir. After spending four years learning classical piano in France, he was introduced to the saxophone while on holiday in 1953. Thus began his lifelong love for the saxophone. Two years of private tuition prepared him for performances in French jazz clubs, before he moved to Belgium. The founding father of modern Congolese music, Joseph Kabasele, recognised his talent, and their collaboration produced hit rumba records.
His musical life reflected his versatility. He recorded film tracks, including that of Ousmane Sembene’s celebrated feature, Credo(1976), as well as background music and commercials. His collaboration with more than a dozen artistes on the fundraising single “Tam Tam Pour l’Ehiopie” in 1984 underlined his sense of social responsibility.
When the rural community where he grew up in Cameroon celebrated his achievements by naming a cultural centre after him in 1998, he donated the saxophone he had used on “Soul Makossa” to the centre. Based on his musical stature, he was appointed the first chairman of the Cameroon Music Corporation, and UNESCO Artist for Peace in 2004.
He remained musically energetic even at an advanced age. He performed at an 80th anniversary concert at Olympia, France in July 2014; and was still working last year, on tour with Symphonic Safari, playing a blend of jazz and classical music. He celebrated 60 years on stage last year.
In 2010, Dibango received the “legion d’honneur” medal in his adopted country France, which further highlighted his international recognition. Called “Papy Groove” because of the spirit of his music, Dibango corroborated the idea that music is the language of the soul.