"It is bleakly fitting that, of all the ways Dibango’s life could have ended, he was brought down by a pandemic of historic proportions."
Manu Dibango, the legendary Cameroonian saxophonist, composer and jazz-fusion innovator whose music career spanned more than six decades, died on March 24 in a Paris hospital after contracting the COVID-19 virus. He was eighty-six years old.
It is bleakly fitting that, of all the ways Dibango’s life could have ended, he was brought down by a pandemic of historic proportions.
His formative years in France during the 1950s exposed him to other African musicians and thinkers, all of whom were already formulating the concept of pan-Africanism, an ideal that Dibango would eventually embody. This was a man who performed with Le Grand Kallé et l’African Jazz, a pioneering orchestra who helped define the Congolese rumba sound, in the very nightclubs where bureaucrats and diplomats were discussing the future of post-independence Congo. He became the first foreign musician to perform in Côte d’Ivoire after the country gained independence from France.
Manu Dibango was a man of history, influenced by it as much as he helped to define it. His life unfolded as the continent of his birth rapidly changed in only a few short decades, and the many decades since made him witness to a defining era of human history. Yet, for Dibango, all this was secondary to the music. In October 2019, in an interview with Radio France Internationale’s Claudy Siar, Dibango put it succinctly: “‘Somewhere,’ he begins, vaguely gesturing around his head, ‘it’s music that keeps pushing me, keeps pushing me, keeps pushing me.’”
The Magical Virus of Music
Emmanuel (Manu) N’Djoké Dibango was born in 1934 in the port city of Douala to Protestant parents. His earliest memories take him back to primary school where he studied Duala, the indigenous language of his mother’s ethnicity. “Makossa”, from his first international hit, 1972’s “Soul Makossa”, is a Duala word meaning “I dance”. After school, the young Dibango would visit his local temple, where his mother led the women’s choir. It’s here, he explained in a 1991 UNESCO interview, that he first caught the “magical virus” of music.
Listen to “Soul Makossa” from the album Soul Makossa (1972)
At age fifteen, Dibango was sent to boarding school in France. His music education began with classical piano at age seventeen. He would pick up the saxophone a few years later, partly as a joke between him and his classmates, but he also credits the jazz greats Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong among others for inspiring him to master the saxophone.
Not long after, Dibango joined a jazz band led by Francis Bebey, a Cameroonian guitarist. The two of them maintained a lifelong friendship, with Dibango referring to Bebey as his hero. Bebey married one of Dibango’s cousins, a fact Dibango loved to share with anyone who would listen.
The Road to Stardom
It was the heady days of 1960 that laid the path for Dibango’s transformation into a global musical icon. By this point, he had already been living in Brussels, Belgium, for several years. He began to perform at a nightclub called Anges Noirs, which became famous for bringing in notable black artists from the African diaspora. The club, which was open to all, brought together an eclectic mix of white Belgians, black Europeans, Latin-Americans, and Caribbeans, and with them a confluence of various musical genres. Tango, samba, the cha-cha, and jazz, all of which built upon a sturdy rhythmic base, planted the seed of musical experimentation in Dibango’s mind.
Of the many African performers who walked through the doors of Anges Noirs, it was the arrival of Joseph Kabasélé, the titular “Grand Kallé” of African Jazz, that would leave the biggest impression on Dibango’s life. It was Kabasélé who wrote “Independence Cha-Cha”, independent Congo’s liberation anthem. As the patrons of Anges Noirs danced to this tune, Dibango realized the potential of fusing traditional African musical norms with those of jazz.
Impressed with Dibango’s musical acumen, Kabasélé invited him to perform with African Jazz as they toured post-independence Congo, marking Dibango’s first return to Africa since he had left in 1949. In 1961, he returned to his birth country of Cameroon, though the visit was bittersweet. Having spent so many years in Europe, he realized that his life had been split between two cultures. The contradictions between the social mores of Cameroon versus those of France and Belgium made it hard for Dibango to feel truly “at home”, a reality he touched upon in that same UNESCO interview.
The contradiction Dibango felt is one experienced by almost anyone within a diaspora. At the same time, this liminal space in between rigidly defined cultures afforded Dibango an ability to think more creatively. As much as he incorporated his African heritage and European upbringing into his identity, so too did he express that through his music. Upon returning to Paris, he set up a studio where he collaborated with various artists from Africa and the African diaspora. In this way, he embodied the spirit of pan-Africanism: celebrating the universality of the African people through the language of music.
Once “Soul Makossa” took off as an international hit, Dibango’s stardom saw a meteoric rise. A year after its release, he toured with the American salsa band Fania All Stars. Jersey City funk collective Kool and the Gang’s 1974 hit “Jungle Boogie” took inspiration from Dibango, going on to influence the American funk and disco scene as well as hip-hop.
A Prolific Musical Output
"His generosity in life earned him the UNESCO Artist for Peace award in 2004 for his efforts in using the arts to promote peace and dialogue."
During the 1980s, Dibango greatly expanded his creative output, and branched out into numerous genres. In 1980 and 1981, he collaborated with some of Jamaica's biggest reggae performers, such as Robbie Shakespeare, Sly Dunbar, Ansell Collins, and Mikey Chung on the records Gone Clear and Ambassador.
Listen to “Reggae Makossa” from the album Gone Clear (1980)
In 1985, Dibango recorded Electric Africa with, among others, the innovative jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, who himself helped to pioneer the sounds of techno and hip-hop. Afrijazzy, released in 1986, brought the seminal South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela on board.
Listen to “Echos Beti”, feat. Herbie Hancock, from the album Electric Africa (1985)
The early 1990s saw a slew of releases that featured African performers more prominently. Wakafrika, released in 1994, may as well be labeled the African supergroup with the musicians featured on it. Among them were Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, Mali’s Salif Keita, Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti, and the South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Listen to “Emma”, feat. Salif Keita, from the album Wakafrika (1994)
It is strange in some respect to talk of Manu Dibango in the past. While watching his October RFI interview, he appears so vivacious and engaged. He may have been eighty-five at the time, but he showed no sign of slowing down. He was even talking of a new project he intended to start working on before COVID-19 struck. His generosity in life earned him the UNESCO Artist for Peace award in 2004 for his efforts in using the arts to promote peace and dialogue.
Though his body has left this world, his soul lives on in his extensive discography and the countless musicians he has influenced over decades. His enthusiastic inclusion of musical stylings and willingness to collaborate with artists from all over the world is a testament to his creative genius. More than that, he proved in his life and in his legacy that music really is a universal language that unites us, even when we live in chaotic times, like the end of colonization or a viral pandemic.
Listen to “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” on CubAfrica, and album by Cuarteto Patria & Manu Dibango (2018)