WORDS: NICK GORDON BROWN
As the world adapts to the myriad new realities that are a consequence of the Covid 19 pandemic, this morning (March 24) saw the sad news that legendary African musician Manu Dibango has passed away in his adopted hometown of Paris after contracting the virus. A giant of the continent’s music scene alongside the likes of Fela Kuti and Hugh Masekela, he helped take afrobeat global. However, in addition he is inextricably intertwined with the world of DJs and club culture thanks to his breakthrough international hit ‘Soul Makossa’, and the role played in its success by David Mancuso.
Mancuso’s 1970s New York night The Loft is frequently credited with being the birthplace of club and DJ culture as we understand them today, with seminal figures in the world of disco and house such as Larry Levan, Nicky Siano, Frankie Knuckles, Danny Krivit and David Morales all taking inspiration directly from its dancefloor. However, Mancuso is also celebrated as the first DJ to break a record through club play rather than sole reliance on radio. This in turn helped him to initiate the world’s first DJ record pool, which acted as the template for promoting tracks upfront via club DJs which is still going strong several decades on.
The story goes that Mancuso picked up a copy of ‘Soul Makossa’ in a Brooklyn import store, and such was the effect when he played it at The Loft that demand quickly outstripped supply. Some of those copies had been snapped up by other DJs mesmerised by this African take on funk, and this only increased the buzz. Eventually it reached the ears of NYC’s most influential black music radio DJ, Frankie Crocker on WBLS, who also championed it. Such was the track’s scarcity that numerous cash-in cover versions were released, but fortunately the original became the biggest hit when US giant Atlantic Records licensed it from original French label Fiesta. Despite arguably being a fusion of afrobeat and funk, the role played by club DJs in its success often sees it billed as disco’s first crossover hit.
Dibango famously reached a settlement with Michael Jackson, at the time the biggest pop star on the planet, after he used the "ma-mako, ma-ma-sa, mako-mako ssa" chant from ‘Soul Makossa’ as a pivotal hook on ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Soemthing’.
To this day, ‘Soul Makossa’ remains a failsafe sample source for producers who want to move a dancefloor, as with Addison Groove’s 2017 tune ‘Changa’.
Born in Cameroon in 1933, Manu Dibango moved to France as a teenager, and took inspiration from the Parisian jazz scene. As a young saxophonist, he spent touring time in jazz bands in both Africa and Europe, and he began to produce his own music in the late 1960s. As the 1970s dawned, he was drawn ever more towards dancefloor sounds, as this pre-‘Soul Makossa’ cut from 1970 demonstrates.
It was natural for Dibango to mix styles and sounds from the two continents both of which he called home, and this is heard on his 1972 album Africadelic. The title track does exactly what it says on the tin, melding psychedelia touch and afro-jazz. We also feature the riotously funky, percussion-driven ‘The Panther’, which sounds like a classic jazz-inflected movie theme put through a Cameroonian blender.
In 1979 and 1981, Manu recorded two reggae-infused albums in Jamaica under the auspices of Island Records boss Chris Blackwell. Here he worked with the island’s red-hot rhythm section Sly & Robbie – less well known is the fact that backing vocalists on the project included none other than Jocelyn Brown and Gwen Guthrie. Jocelyn features here, though not in the front and centre role to which we are accustomed.
The 1980s saw Manu further fusing African and western sounds to maximum dancefloor effect when he teamed up with one of the decade’s most cutting edge labels. Celluloid was a home for all manner of leftfield artists – alongside Dibango on the roster were the likes of electro pioneer Afrika Bambaataa (under his aliases Shango, and Time Zone – recording ‘World Destruction’ with John Lydon under the latter; and mutant disco trailblazers Material. Dibango kicked off on Celluloid in 1984 with ‘Abele Dance’, with the album Electric Africa following in 1985, co-produced with king of the genre-trashers Bill Laswell (who to all intents and purposes also was Material).
Manu Dibango’s legacy (in addition to the ‘Soul Makossa’ tale with which we started) includes shining a global spotlight on African music; being a master of fusing differing musical styles; and a catalogue that is both rich and deep - and a prime source for imaginative sampling. The makossa chant has also been picked up on by the likes of Kanye West (‘Lost In The World’) and Will Smith (‘Getting’ Jiggy Wit It’), but we will conclude with some heavy hitters of our scene who dug deeper into that catalogue.
‘Straight Out The Jungle’ by the Jungle Brothers kicks off with a Dibango chant from 1973’s ‘Weya’.
With his Sunburst Band project in 1998, Dave Lee (aka Joey Negro) took on Manu’s 1976 cut ‘Big Blow’.
1977’s ‘Ceddo’ forms the musical bed for the Chemical Brothers’ ‘Battle Scars’ from 2007’s We Are The Night’ album.
Manu Dibango: 1933 – 2020. Rest in peace, and thank you for the music and the inspiration.