Manu Dibango - Biography
By Robert Leaver
An internationally recognized musical celebrity, the bald headed, shade wearing, sly smiling sax man Manu Dibango set a new paradigm for African musicians. His song, “Soul Makossa,” released in 1972 stands as one of the most enduring and influential dance songs of all time. Already recognized as a musical force in France when the song came out it became a popular dance hit in New York City. It crossed over to the Latin community and landed him on stage with the Fania All-Stars at Yankee Stadium for a legendary performance. Its song structure would help spawn the disco movement and it directly inspired songs by Michael Jackson, Poor Righteous Teachers, the Fugees, Eddie Murphy, and Jay-Z. Although defined by “Soul Makossa’ his long career straddles many eras and crosses through diverse genres.
Born in 1933 in Douala, Cameroon, in West Africa he was educated in church and in colonial schools where he studied music and learned French. As a teenager he was sent to Paris to study classical piano and later switched over to the saxophone. There, he met fellow Cameroonian musician and student Francis Bebey whose interest in ethnomusicology broadened Dibango’s musical palette. But above all he admired African-American jazz musicians such as trumpeter Louis Armnstrong and saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet.
He earned his bachelor’s degree while gigging at nightclubs like the Monaco, but he abandoned further studies and relocated to Brussels. While based there he met his future wife Coco and toured with jazz and dance bands throughout Europe. In 1960 he was hired to assemble a house band at Les Anges Noirs. As the Congolese were negotiating their independence Belgium the club became a gathering point. Playing to a largely African audience he was able to explore African musical idioms along with the popular Cuban rhythms such as the cha cha cha.
In Brussels he began to play with the newly independent Congo’s most popular musician, Joseph Kabasele (Le Grand Kalle), as a member of his band African Jazz. They would go on to record more than 1000 tracks together in studios in Belgium and Kinshasa and in 1961 Dibango went to the Congo to tour with the group. He played alongside the likes of legendary musicians such as singer Tabu Ley Rochereau and guitarist extraordinaire Dr. Nico. The music scene in Kinshasa was bustling and the musicians there were at he vanguard of African popular music. Dibango took over management of the club Afro-Negro and later opened his own venue, Tam-Tam. As manager and bandleader he was free to choose his own musical path and the musicians he wanted to play with. He introduced the twist to Kinshasa in the early ‘60s with his hit “Twist a Léo.”
He returned to France in 1965 and took a job with the popular Dick Rivers orchestra and later worked with Nino Ferrer playing Hammond organ and saxophone. He also reunited with Le Grand Kalle for recording sessions with Cuban flautist Don Gonzalo Fernandez on a Latin session that included a take on the boogaloo; the resulting album, Le Grand Kalle, Don Gonzalo, Manu Dibango & L’African Team (Sonodisc/African 1966), remains an Afro-Latin classic.
By 1969 Dibango was an instantly recognizable figure on the Paris music scene and he signed his first major recording contract. His first LP, Saxy Party (1969 Phillips), gave a jazz gloss to a set of originals and covers. With one ear trained on musical developments in America, in particular the soul explosion, and the other on the popular music back in West Africa Dibango was signed to Decca Records. In his homeland of Cameroon the bouncy dance beat of makossa ruled and Dibango composed a single in celebration of the African Nations Cup soccer tournament held there in 1972. The B-side of that single was a track called “Soul Makossa.”
Some American DJ’s visiting Paris picked up Dibango’s single while visiting Decca Records and “Soul Makossa” began to chart in America. The record company decided to include the single on his O Boso (1973 London/Polygram) and its unique blend of African soul began to catch on in Europe. Dibango performed an extended stint in New York City in 1973 fanning the fires of his dance hit. American success brought French acclaim and that same year he performed to a full house at the prestigious Olympia Theatre in Paris. That summer he was invited to perform with the Fania All Stars at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Dibango and his “Soul Makossa” would enjoy an unprecedented success for an African musician in the Latino and African-American community.
Makossa Man (1974 Atlantic) continued the spread of Dibango’s good time dance gospel. Leaving the Euro-American limelight in 1975 he accepted the prestigious post of musical director for the national radio and television orchestra of the Ivory Coast. He remained based in cosmopolitan Abidjan, Africa’s Paris, for four years. He released Manu 76 (1976 Decca/Polygram) and Super Kumba (1976 Decca/Polygram) and continued to explore the jazz-funk envelope as heard in his life recording A L’Olympia (1978 Fiesta).
While recording Home Made (1980 Sonodisc) in 1978 in Ghana and Nigeria he struck up a friendship with Fela Kuti in Lagos where they shared Afro-beat grooves. “Ah! Freak Sans Fric” became one of his signature dance tunes. Following a big show in Jamaica he met reggae’s famed rhythm crew Sly & Robbie with whom he recorded Gone Clear (1980 Mango). Having relocated back to Paris in the autumn of 1979 he unleashed his “Reggae Makossa” on the nascent Afro-Pop scene the following year. In 1981 he returned to Cameroon and briefly set up a club in Douala.
A master at choosing crossover friendly titles his Waka Juju (1982 Polydor/Polygram) contained popular dance hits including the title cut. He teamed up with French producer Martin Messonier to record the single “Abele Dance” (1984 Celluloid), which became a big dance hit in Europe. On Electric Africa (1985 Celluloid) he collaborated with bassist/producer Bill Laswell and jazz keyboard legend Herbie Hancock on a jazz-fusion dance excursion. In recognition of his contributions to the French cultural milieu he was awarded the Medaille des Arts et des Lettres in 1986 by Minister of Culure Jack Lang.
He enlisted the participation of South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela on Afrijazzy (1987 Melodie). In 1988 “La Fête à Manu” concert was organized in France to honor him and the following year he released Rasta Souvenir (1989 Sonodisc) with tracks such as “Happy Feeling” and “Choc ‘N’ Soul.” His fascinating biography “Trois kilos de café” was published in 1990 and he recorded two instrumental albums that included versions of African classic, Negropolitaines Vol. 1 (1992 Melodie) and Negropolitaines Vol. 2 (1992 Melodie). Anchored on the solid rhythms of Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen, Dibango stretches out smoothly on the saxophone creating sophisticated crossover fare.
Dibango continued to cultivate and inspire young artists as heard on his Live ’91 (1994 Stern’s Music); drawn from a show at the fabled Olympia Theatre in Paris he updates his afro-sound with elements of hip-hop. To mark his 60th birthday he assembled an awesome cast of African superstars on his brilliant and ambitious Wakafrika (1994 Warner Brothers). Pictured on the cover with arm raised, elbow bent, and head down resembling the shape of the African continent (complete with a shoe for Madagascar) Dibango represents Africa proudly. The concept was to have famous African musicians sing famous African songs from other regions of Africa and its execution was perfect. The likes of King Sunny Ade, Salif Keita, Angélique Kidjo, Toure Kunda, Papa Wemba, Youssou N’Dour, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo deliver memorable performances.
The death of his wife in 1995 set him on a more spiritual path for his Lamastabastani (1996 Melodie) recording that included the participation of a gospel choir. He collaborated with Cuban guitarist and singer Eliades Ochoa, of Buena Vista Social Club fame, on Cubafrica (1998 Melodie). Standing on familiar musical turf Dibango lends his silky sax to a set of Cuban standards.
As the new millennium began Dibango along with soccer star Roger Milla was crowned Cameroonian of the century by popular vote back in Africa. Mboa’ Su (2000 JPS) which translates as “at home” finds him in his comfort zone presenting new musicians and giving a tribute to the late Fela Kuti. He followed it up with Kamer Feeling (2001 JPS) and in 2002 released a collection of rarities featuring him on xylophone and marimba entitled B Sides (Soul Makossa).
In 2004 Dibango was named UNESCO’s Peace Artist of the Year and gave a large concert in front of the U.N. organization’s office in Paris. That same year he participated in a concert series at London’s Barbican Centre honoring he life and legacy of Fela Kuti, titled “Black President.” Performing with the Maraboutic Big Band and guest artists such as Baaba Maal and Coco Mbassi, a live recording, The Lion of Africa captures the magic.
With the resurgence of interest in Afro-beat music and the seemingly endless appetite for retro funk and soul the marketplace has seen several excellent collections of Dibango’s work. Africadelic: The Best of Manu Dibango (2003 Wrasse), The Rough Guide to Manu Dibango (2004 World Music Network), and Essential (2006 Manteca) are all worthy of the artist they represent. Reminiscing back to his formative years as a young musician Dibango decided to revisit the music of American jazz legend Sydney Bechet with Joue Sydney Bechet (2007 Cristal).
It is impossible to overestimate Manu Dibango’s importance in the realm of African and World music. As a composer, musician, producer and impresario he has had a profound impact on African music and most notably its expatriate nexus in Paris, France. His “Soul Makossa” inspired disco, Latin soul and hip-hop genres and influenced an entire generation of musicians and dancers. A magnanimous figure throughout his decades spanning career Dibango helped open the door to new fusions and adventures in world music.