RIP: Manu Dibango

Posted April 1, 2020 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

“Soul Makossa,” Manu Dibango’s beloved funky hit, proved to be one of the most vital contributions to early disco

manudibango-00Cameroon saxophonist Manu Dibango died March 24 in his hometown of Île-de-France at the age of 86 due to complications of COVID-19 (coronavirus). According to his music publisher, Thiery Durepaire, he died in a hospital in the Paris region.

One of the earliest rumba stars, Dibango – born Emmanuel N’Djoké Dibango – quickly became the face of African music in the 1960’s and Afrobeat later on. After joining African Jazz (Le Grand Kallé et l’African Jazz), a Congo band led by Joseph Kabasele, Dibango left the group to start his own band and set his sights on Paris in 1965 for the next phase of his career, releasing a set of singles on Philips. By 1969, Mercury Records in France had signed him and released his debut solo album, Saxy-Party. Only one album came from the deal and Dibango was eventually dropped, almost dashing away any appeal to gain notoriety statewide.

1972: Atlantic Records redistributes "Soul Makossa" and places "The Original Version" on it to differentiate it from dozens of cover versions

1972: Atlantic Records redistributes “Soul Makossa” and places “The Original Version” on it to differentiate it from dozens of cover versions

He quickly signed with Fiesta, a France-based label that distributed product to South Africa, and put out a self-titled album in 1971. It wasn’t until 1972 that David Mancuso, the proprietor of The Loft, discovered an import of Dibango’s deliciously funky makossa four-minute jam “Soul Makossa” in a Jamaican record shop in Brooklyn. “People went wild trying to find that record,” Nicky Siano, renowned NYC deejay of The Gallery, says in the book 1973: Rock at the Crossroads. It became an instant underground hit at many of The Loft parties and stayed in rotation. The song gained a new slice of popularity after deejay Frankie Crocker programmed it at New York’s WBLS. At the time, because the single was so obscure, other bands and artists like the Lafayette Afro-Rock Band, All Dyrections, the Ghana Soul Explosion and Afrique (being the most successful) capitalized on the moment by releasing their covers of the song. But it was Dibango’s version, a groovy pre-disco workout featuring Georges Arvaanitas on piano, Freddy Mars delivering spellbound percussion and the song’s creator delivering splashes of an echoed baritone and a dizzying sax on an infectious chorus, that endured and became the prized favorite in the US. By the year’s end, the song was picked up for national release on Atlantic Records and London Records in the UK. In the US, it rushed to number 21 on the R&B charts and a surprising 35 on pop by July. The success of the latter had everything to do with the fanfare that came from Mancuso’s popular upstairs haven, one of the greatest aspirations in New York discotheque history. And although the genre of disco was not in full swing by this point, the grooves embedded in Dibango’s masterpiece proved vital for the upswing of disco music.

“Soul Makossa” was also nominated for two Grammys in the categories of Best R&B Instrumental Performance and Best Instrumental Composition in 1974.

The song’s infectious chant of “ma-mako, ma-masa, mako-makosa” found a new life when Michael Jackson premiered it on the post-disco jam “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the opening track to his best-selling 1982 LP, Thriller. Rihanna used the same reference on “Don’t Stop the Music” in 2007. Before that, KC and the Sunshine Band used the horn parts for the break on “Do It Good” in 1974. But MJ’s contribution proved to be legendary, reviving the song for a new generation of R&B and pop lovers.

Dibango recorded a string of albums for Polygram and Fiesta throughout the ’70’s and early ’80’s while remaining active with touring and recording for a few indie French labels, but nothing had the prominence and mainstream reach of “Soul Makossa.” You hear it in Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy With It,” Jay-Z’s “Face Off” and Kanye West’s “Lost in the World.”

Dibango’s unfortunate passing marks the beginning of a long list of artists and musicians who have succumbed to the novel coronavirus. According to stats in France from April 1, 52,128 people are contaminated by COVID-19 and 3,523 have died. Globally, 860,181 people have been infected with COVID-19 and killed 42,341 have died. Other luminaries in music that have fallen to the coronavirus include jazz trumpeter Wallace Roney (59), country singer-songwriter Joe Diffie (61) and “I Love Rock and Roll” songwriter Alan Merrill (69). Others announced to have been infected with the virus include gospel singer Sandi Patty, Americana rock musician John Prine and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.

Funeral services for Dibango were to be “held in strict privacy” followed by a public tribute “when possible.”


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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