The legendary Cameroonian-born Afro-jazz musician and saxophonist, Manu Dibango on Monday became one of the latest casualties of the monstrous COVID-19 which claimed his life at 86. Yinka Olatunbosun reports
The world woke up on March 24 to the rude shock of the news of the death of Emmanuel N’Djoké “Manu” Dibango, a leading Afro-jazz musician, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. Actually, the world has not really been sleeping since the Covid-19 outbreak became a pandemic. Health workers, medical supply companies, tech companies, and the media are some of the most concerned personnel, who are involved in one way or the order in putting a face to this creepy outbreak. With over 20,000 deaths recorded, the impact is cringe-worthy at the mention of any prominent figure as a casualty. So was the sad epilogue to the life story of Dibango as he breathed for the last time in a hospital, South of France.
Born in Douala, Cameroon, his father, Michel Manfred N’Djoké Dibango, was a civil servant while his mother was a fashion designer, running her own small business. Dibango’s uncle was the leader of his extended family. Upon his death, Dibango’s father refused to take over, as he never fully initiated his son into the Yabassi’s customs. Throughout his childhood, Dibango slowly forgot the Yabassi language in favour of the Duala.
As a child, Dibango attended the Protestant church every night for religious education and developed his interest in music from there. In 1941, after being educated at his village school, he was accepted into a colonial school, near his home, where he learned French.
He arrived in France in the early 1950s to study jazz and saxophone and then began to play in clubs. Dibango shot into international stardom with his 1972 seven-track album titled, “Soul Makossa” in which the title track became a global hit. The song “Soul Makossa” contains the lyrics “makossa”, meaning “dance” in his native tongue, the Cameroonian language Duala. It has influenced popular music hits, including Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie”. The 1982 parody song “Boogie in your butt” by comedian Eddie Murphy interpolates Soul Makossa’s bassline and horn charts while “Butt Naked Booty Bless” by 1990s hip-hop group Poor Righteous Teachers heavily samples its musical bridge and drum patterns.
Composed for the African Cup of Nations in 1972, Soul Makossa earned two Grammy nominations at the 16th Annual Grammy Awards in 1974 in the Best R&B Instrumental Performance and Best Instrumental Composition categories. The song won the hearts of many fast-rising artists of the period including the phenomenal King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Jackson would later face a lawsuit for infringing on Dibango’s copyright in his classic hit, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”. The track had a sample of Dibango’s hook in Soul Makossa in the popular line: ‘Mama-say Mama-sa Mama-kosa’.
Eventually, Jackson opted to settle out of court. But in 2009, Jackson and Rihanna worked on another collaborative track titled, ‘Don’t Stop The Music’ with the same Soul Makossa sample, forcing Dibango to hurl Jackson back to court, like an unrepentant cheating spouse.
When Rihanna asked Jackson in 2007 for permission to sample the line, he allegedly approved the request without contacting Dibango beforehand. Dibango’s attorneys brought the case before a court in Paris, demanding €500,000 in damages and asking for Sony BMG, EMI and Warner Music to be “barred from receiving ‘mama-say mama-sa’-related income until the matter was resolved”. The judge ruled that Dibango’s claim was inadmissible: a year earlier, a different Paris-area judge had required Universal Music to include Dibango’s name in the liner notes of future French releases of ‘Don’t Stop the Music’. By then, Dibango had withdrawn legal action, thus waiving his right to seek further damages.
Despite this history behind him, Dibango enjoyed a strong professional relationship with many international artists including those of Nigerian descent. A former member of the seminal Congolese rumba group African Jazz, Dibango has collaborated with many other musicians, including Fania All-Stars, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Herbie Hancock, Bill Laswell, Bernie Worrell, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, King Sunny Adé, Don Cherry as well as Sly and Robbie. His popularity rose in the UK with a disco hit called “Big Blow”, which was originally released in 1976 and re-mixed as a single in 1978 on Island Records. In 1998, he recorded the album “CubAfrica” with Cuban artist Eliades Ochoa.
Dibango’s first instrument was the keyboard, later the saxophone and vibraphone. A great arranger, he had been in concert with a quartet and other times with a 28-piece orchestra. His band is reflective of his cosmopolitan nature.
He served as the first chairman of the Cameroon Music Corporation, settling disputes around artists’ royalties. Dibango was appointed a UNESCO Artist for Peace in 2004.
His song, “Reggae Makossa”, is featured on the soundtrack to the 2006 video game Scarface: The World Is Yours. In August 2009, he played the closing concert at the revived Brecon Jazz Festival. In July 2014, he made an 80th-anniversary concert at Olympia, France which was broadcast by TV5Monde.
Tributes have poured in since his death. One of them came from the South African pop diva, Yvonne Chaka Chaka.
“It’s very sad news to hear about a brother and the son of the soil. It is a real bitter pill to swallow. This Coronavirus is right here and it is disrupting everything. May his soul rest in peace. It is really hard to believe that he is gone,” she said on SABC News.
The Grammy-winning Afrobeat musician, Angelique Kidjo, declared on Twitter: “You’re the original giant of African music and a beautiful human being.”
Other celebrities who have tested positive for the virus include Idris Elba and wife, as well as Tom Hanks and his wife. They have since recovered from the disease.