Manu Dibango, the Lion of Cameroon, RIP

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Manu Dibango performs at Festival Les Escales, Saint-Nazaire, France, July 2019 Photo by Selbymay (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

I was heartbroken to learn that the great saxophonist Emmanuel N'Djoké "Manu" Dibango, known as the Lion of Cameroon, succumbed to Covid-19 a few days ago in France. The African music titan was 86 and still full of energy and joy, as can be seen in his performance last October at the Grand Rex in Paris, shown below.

I first heard Dibango’s smash hit “Soul Makossa” in Paris in the mid-1970’s while living there. I don’t remember catching it on Los Angeles radio before that, maybe because the local jazz station, KBCA-FM, didn’t spin it. The groundbreaking song fused American soul and funk with the Cameroonian makossa urban style. It was actually the B-side of a 45 rpm 7” called “Lily” that Dibango wrote to promote the Africa Cup in Cameroon. Unfortunately, no one wanted to listen to the songs after the Cameroonian team failed to win the Cup. Luckily, the B-side, “Soul Makossa,” got picked up by a top New York DJ named David Mancuso, who found the 7” single in a West Indian music shop and started playing it at a popular disco club called The Loft. The song was later placed into heavy rotation by DJ Frankie Crocker of WBLS, New York. With “Soul Makossa,” Manu Dibango hit the U.S. top 40 with an African single, and earned both a gold record and a Grammy nomination. The song is still popular today on dance floors around the world.

As recounted in my book Rhythm Planet: The Great World Music Makers, Manu Dibango told me about his teenage years in the 1940’s, growing up in the port city of Douala, Cameroon. The Dibango household did not own a radio, but they played records and listened to church music, as his mother conducted the local church choir. He managed to sneak in other music unbeknownst to his strict parents and attended performances of both traditional and contemporary African music like Highlife, which influenced the Cameroonian makossa style that developed in the 1950’s.

In 1949 at the age of 15, Dibango’s parents sent him to Paris to study philosophy, but he also took piano lessons. Postwar Paris was a hotbed of American jazz, chanson and swing, and Dibango absorbed it all. He hung out in left-bank St.-Germain-des-Prés, loved hearing Louis Armstrong on the radio, and fell in love with Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, and Count Basie. Dibango told me that hearing these great American jazz musicians “was the first time we Africans saw blacks with a positive image as artists.”

In the 1950’s, Dibango played in jazz clubs and cabarets in both Brussels and Paris. Although he studied piano in Paris, Dibango became more drawn to the saxophone—a primary instrument in jazz. In Brussels he met the great Congolese bandleader Joseph Kabasele, aka Le Grand Kallé, and joined his band African Jazz. The band left Brussels for Kinshasha, Belgian Congo, and stayed for two years. Dibango recorded over 100 songs with the group, including the anthems “Indépendence Cha Cha” and “Africa Mokili Mobimba.” These songs instilled pride in both newly-independent African nations as well as African countries still seeking independence from European powers. 

Dibango’s early hits helped to internationalize African music and also influenced all of it in their wake, including the music of Zap Mama, Angelique Kidjo, Les Têtes Brulées, to name just a few. My personal collection includes many great Dibango records, including Gone Clear, Négropolitaines, Africadelic, Electric Africa, Lamastabastani, L’African Team. He also contributed to cutting-edge albums on the French label Celluloid, featuring artists like Bill Laswell, Herbie Hancock, Fela, Don Cherry, and the Fania All Stars. These 1980’s albums still sound fresh today. I’ll also never forget the cool, modern sound of the “Abele Dance” single which came out on Celluloid in 1984 as a way-cool dance track. We played that one a lot on KCRW.

Dibango was always a trendsetter, ahead of the curve. His 1990 album Polysonik was the first African hip-hop record. He even recorded an album with The Clash. Wakafrika (1994), brilliantly produced by George Acogny, is one of my all-time favorites and features Salif Keita, Peter Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour, Sinéad O’Connor, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The album cover shows Dibango posed in the shape of the African continent, with his shoe as Madagascar—one of the coolest covers ever. It includes a wonderful version of “Soul Makossa,” Peter Gabriel’s “Biko,” and many other great songs.

In preparing this piece, I revisited Dibango’s preface in Graeme Ewen’s book Africa O-Ye!: Celebration of African Music. I love this part, which not only describes Dibongo’s musical fusion but accurately traces the evolution of what we call “world music” today:

“You have two-way traffic between town and village, village and town. You have a sound that arrives in the town and returns to the village, changed. The echo which comes back is not the same as the original. When a note arrives in town from the village, the town returns it with electronic delay, with reverb, limiter, and all that studio technology, but it is the same note that came from the village…. Music is not fixed, it changes. Traditional music has definitely been affected by modern music…like a person, it evolves, develops.”

I met Dibango in 1995 when he came to perform on the Santa Monica Pier as part of the Twilight Dance Series. I interviewed him on Café LA and invited him to a party I was hosting that night in my new home. I carefully selected the music I put in the CD changer—Dexter Gordon, Duke Ellington, Sam Fan Thomas, and Bébé Manga, among others. At the party, I saw Dibango sitting on the roof deck while Dexter Gordon’s music was on. I asked him, “Ça va?”  He replied, “Ahhhh, que j’aime Dextehhrrr.” Bulls-eye!

I feel lucky to have ever met this great musician, and am saddened by his death. Watch him here, just this past October at the Grand Rex in Paris, which I discovered on French online radio FIP. As you can see and hear, that special night was bursting at the seams with joy.