Cameroonian-born world music superstar, Manu Dibango, stormed the world with an Afrorock hit tune, ‘Soul Makossa’ in 1972 and with his characteristic saxophone tones, went on to hold the music world spellbound. Nseobong Okon-Ekong spoke with him on the sideline of the All Africa Music Awards, AFRIMA, in Lagos
At a rehearsal the previous day, he sat calmly chatting with his manager. When it was his turn to check that everything was fine, he did his bit and left. It was the morning of the concert and awards – the All Africa Music Awards, AFRIMA – which is steadily garnering a reputation for excellent artistic presentations. Under that hectic condition of preparations inside the Eko Convention Centre with all sorts of artisans including carpenters, electricians, decorators and sound engineers shifting into high gear, not many paid attention to the elderly man with a bald pate.
Even as he walked back to his room in Eko Signature Hotel, not many recognized Manu Dibango, the great Cameroonian-born living icon of world music!
To the few who walked up to him, he freely shook hands and obliged photo opportunity. This reporter was one of them. There was no airs about him and we agreed to meet after the event.
However, Mike Dada, President of AFRIMA and his team accorded Dibango his deserved status. He was the only artiste who had an intimidating limousine dedicated to his pleasure.
Done with breakfast on the appointed day, his manager – a very pleasant lady – simply reminded him of the appointment and we started talking as if we were his acquaintance of old.
The entire meeting assumed the character of forgotten friends who found themselves again. The session was conducted with laughter and jokes all the way till his manager reminded him he had to get ready to head for the airport.
At 82 years, Dibango walks with a straight gait, not bent in any shape or form. He could still blow his sax and his voice is strong. It would not be wrong to assume these traits as commentary on his spirituality as men his age are wont to draw nearer to their maker, especially for a music icon who has a fantastic song dedicated to Jesus Christ, titled ‘Xango Jesu Christo’. But he threw shadow punches at the assumption.
“It is one of those songs that you sing with a choir. The fact is that I believe in God. Some people believe in God through a religion. I believe there is Something Else Above. I don’t know who. When I get there, I am going to ask Him. At the moment I think spirituality is something you must have. But not through the Pope; he’s human being. The world gives us more reflection. Just because you see the Pope, then you sanctify yourself. I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe in human power.
I believe in spiritual power. You and I are humans. You don’t know what time you will go. In the beginning, I was a protestant in the Baptist Church. When I was young, I was really into religion. I left Africa at a very young age. I was in Europe till I was 50. Up till now, I go back to Africa once in a while. I live in Europe.I wrote the song ‘Xango Jesu Christo’ for my parents. I wrote the song in 1972; before it I wrote ‘Soul Makossa’ at the same time I wrote four songs that year. I was lucky. I don’t sing about being Christian because I was born a Christian. I didn’t pick up the religion on the way. My uncle was a preacher. I was born into a family that believes strongly in God and it wasn’t easy for me to get out of that and do music. They like God’s music and my music was to them like devil’s music.”
Only one of his children tends towards music and even so, he favours the classical genre. Dibango understands the spirit of independence that rules the arts and allows him to be himself. Having been through many phases in his life, he appreciates the vicissitudes that comes with living. The aged musician spoke of why he keeps a clean shaven pate. It came from an admiration of soldiers that he was acquainted with as a younger person. Today, Dibango feels the weight of the tragedy that is coming upon the performing arts in Africa and all over the world. “The younger ones do not want to take the pains to learn anything. They are in a hurry.
What is the quality of the music if you only spent one or two hours in the studio? I have this example of a younger musician in France. He came into the studio and heard me play the sax. He had never heard it before. He immediately requested that I perform on his album. That is the tragedy of our arts and culture. It is a global tragedy, but it is worse in Africa that is struggling to overcome centuries of her history re-written and re-told by those who conquered her and are still keeping her under subjugation.”
At the AFRIMA awards in Lagos, Dibango who was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award surprised many when he said it was his first recognition in Africa for achievement in his career. He explained that he had received medals of honour from his home country, Cameroon, and his adopted country, France. Honours have also been bestowed on him from Cote D’Ivoire and Benin. For someone who has won nearly all global music laurels, honouring him for the first time in Africa, was indeed historic. And it was very emotional when he said, “I thank AFRIMA for this award because it means so much to me. This is the first award I have ever gotten in Africa.”
He came on stage with a swagger that belies his 82 years and even more so with a scintillating performance on the saxophone.
Manu Dibango stormed the world with an Afrorock hit tune, Soul Makossa, in 1972 and with his characteristic saxophone tones, went on to hold the music world spellbound with the Makossa rhythm and dance, in the years following the release of that hit tune.
Due to a packed programme featuring a line of artistes from all over Africa, he was not allowed much time, but he was completely in his elements on the AFRIMA stage, as he reenacted the fire of yesteryears with the tune, ‘Aye Africa’.
That is a surprising exclusion from a musician who has always steered his vessel away from controversies. Dibango has never been known to be involved in any trouble or scandal. Keeping a clean slate, for him, has been deliberate. “I can’t pretend that I have a message in my music. I am an entertainer. I am not doing politics. I do cultural things but I play music better. I have better respect for people. That is an example I have for young people coming who want to go deep into music. There are many levels in music. Some people like dancing, but there are some music you just want to listen to. For instance when you are working, you can just have some classical music behind you.
There are different kinds of music. If you belong to the first level, good for you. You can’t belong to all the levels. I don’t play music for that. I was born a musician. I didn’t become a musician. I have loved music all my life. My spirituality comes in because I am always busy with the music. When you deal with a high level of spirituality in music, sometimes you are lucky because you are already busy. You don’t have to go and look for spirituality from outside. There is a lot of spirituality in the sound. There are lots of colours in music. The world is so large that you cannot be satisfied. Today, you deal with the timing and the harmony and everything you can find in music if you are very involved in music. In the likes of Beethoven, you see a lot of landscape. I don’t play music because I have to go to a nightclub, smoking and drinking and having sex with women. Music is not only about that.”
To be sure, he had friends like Fela Anikulapo-Kuti who were famous for their epicurean pursuits among other things. And even if both musicians were close, they respected each other’s lifestyle. Dibango dedicated a song to Fela when he passed on. “Our discussion centred on music. Fela knew I was not interested in politics. We did a record together.”
In the course of the interview, Dibango halted a couple of times because he was hard put to advance the discourse in English. He resorted to French and a companion would illuminate his thoughts. This did not happen frequently, but it was an interjection we had to deal with.
“I learnt music from an earlier period. I was fortunate to learn from the end of the 1940s. I went to France in 1949. I started to play music in school because at that time, and up till now, when you go to school, and you are into music or sports, you will be given opportunity to learn music just like everybody else. You don’t play music because you are African; you play music because you are a musician which is different. You have all the repertoire. You have western music. You don’t know much about Africa. I was born in Douala.
When I left Douala, I didn’t have the opportunity to know Douala. At that time, we were not recognized. In the 60s I was in Europe, and most of my friends were French. A lot of young people had the opportunity to go to Europe by that time. We used to meet at summertime to know each other. Most of us were in school and good in school. It is not because you are black that you are not good. It’s not because you are African that you play music. Every country has its own musician. It’s either you like music or you don’t. You don’t like music only because you are African.”
Dibango gained global fame in 1972 with the release of his hit, ‘Soul Makossa’. The song would later be sampled by the likes of Michael Jackson and other famous musicians. His fight for payment from those who used his work also garnered attention. He explained that an artiste has no way of knowing which song would make a hit. “You don’t make a hit. People make the hit. When you go to studio, you can do 10 songs. If you are lucky, people will like one of them. The magic of a hit is that everywhere, it is the song people want to hear. A hit is not made out of your own opinion, but the opinion of others.