Manu Dibango : Cameroonian Musician

Author | Written by: Virginia Gorlinski

Manu Dibango, in full Emmanuel Dibango N’Djocke, (born Dec. 12, 1933, Douala, Camer.), Cameroonian saxophonist, pianist, vibraphonist, and composer whose innovative jazz fusions and wide-ranging collaborative work played a significant role in introducing European and North American audiences to the sounds of West African popular musics between the mid-20th and the early 21st century.

Dibango was born into a musical Protestant Christian household to parents who represented two historically rivalrous Cameroonian ethnic groups: his mother was Duala (Douala), and his father was Yabassi. Dibango’s musical aptitude became evident at an early age through his singing at the local church, where his mother was a choir leader. In 1949, when he was 15 years old, Dibango was sent to school in France. After completing high school in Saint-Calais and Chartres, he furthered his studies in Reims and in Paris. He started taking classical piano lessons at age 17, and a few years later he began studying saxophone, having been captivated by the music of Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, and other jazz artists. Making quick progress on both instruments, he joined a jazz band with noted Cameroonian guitarist and composer Francis Bebey and soon became a recognized entity within the local jazz circuit.

In 1956 Dibango moved to Brussels, where he not only learned to play the vibraphone but also expanded his stylistic vocabulary to include various West African forms—most notably makossa, a Cameroonian genre based in Douala. It was then that he began to realize his ambition of forging a new musical sound by merging jazz with African popular traditions. In 1960 Dibango toured Europe with African Jazz, a band led by Congolese musician Joseph Kabasele, who shared Dibango’s interest in musical fusion. After the tour, Dibango followed Kabasele to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and he remained with the band until 1963, when he moved back to Cameroon. There he established his own band and continued to broaden his knowledge of African regional styles.

Dibango returned to Paris in 1965 and supported himself as a studio musician, backing many African American and African artists at a time when Europe was riding the wave of soul music. He continued to experiment with new amalgamations of jazz and various popular musics, especially those stemming from Africa and the African diaspora. He included one such experiment on the B-side of a single in 1972 when he released a song he had been commissioned to write for the African Cup of Nations football (soccer) match. That experiment was “Soul Makossa,” a mixture of jazz, makossa, and soul music that ultimately marked the turning point in his career. Although popular in Europe, both “Soul Makossa” and Dibango himself were virtually unknown in North America until the tune was discovered and broadcast in 1973 by a radio disc jockey in New York City. “Soul Makossa” took the United States by storm, thrusting Dibango into the limelight of popular music. The song was even famously paraphrased by Michael Jackson in the recurring phrase “ma-ma say, ma-ma sa, ma ma-coo-sa” at the end of his 1982 release “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”

Following the “Soul Makossa” frenzy, Dibango traveled widely, absorbing new sounds and undertaking collaborative projects with musicians who represented an array of Afro-Caribbean, African, and African American popular music genres. He toured internationally with the American salsa band the Fania All Stars in 1973. Several years later, he recorded two albums—Gone Clear (1980) and Ambassador (1980)—in collaboration with a host of Jamaica’s most prominent reggae performers. Meanwhile, he released the Africa-oriented albums Home Made (1978), featuring Nigerian and Ghanaian musicians, and Waka Juju (1982), which tapped elements of an assortment of African popular styles. After the release of the funk-flavoured Surtension (1982), Dibango worked with an international lineup of jazz luminaries, such as American pianist Herbie Hancock in Electric Africa (1985) and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela in Afrijazzy (1986).

Dibango’s jazz blends of the 1990s and the 2000s continued to draw from a diverse pool of popular music. Jazz, rap, and various African traditions were intertwined in Polysonik (1991), while Wakafrika (1994) brought together African vocal virtuosos Youssou N’Dour (Senegal), King Sunny Ade (Nigeria), Salif Keita (Mali), Angélique Kidjo (Benin), Ray Lema (Congo), and the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo (South Africa), as well as other prominent musicians. Dibango revisited his spiritual roots with a mixture of gospel music, spirituals, and rhythm and blues on the album Lamastabastani (1995). His albums of the early 21st century tended to be retrospective. Africadelic (2003), for instance, was a compilation of his greatest hits, released to mark the 30-year anniversary of the “Soul Makossa” explosion. In 2007 Dibango issued Manu Dibango joue Sidney Bechet, an all-jazz tribute to American saxophonist Sidney Bechet, whose music had been a formative force in Dibango’s musical development.

In addition to his stage and studio activities, Dibango composed music for film and television. In 1990 he published his autobiography, Three Kilos of Coffee (originally in French), with Danielle Rouard. Harbouring a deep and ongoing concern for the well-being of humanity, he often used his music and his influence to garner support for various humanitarian causes. In recognition of his contributions to the development of music as well as his cultivation of cross-cultural dialogue—particularly between Europe, Africa, and North America—through the arts, he was named the UNESCO Peace Artist of the Year in 2004.