Manu Dibango, Soulful Ambassador of African Music, Dies at 86


This obituary is part of a series about people who died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Manu Dibango, a saxophonist from Cameroon whose 1972 single “Soul Makossa” made modern African music a clear presence on Western pop charts, died on Tuesday in a hospital in France. He was 86.

His Facebook page said the cause was Covid-19 but did not say where in France he died. Mr. Dibango had lived in France for some time.

Although “Soul Makossa” was named after makossa, a Cameroonian style of music, and its lyrics were in the Douala language of Cameroon, Mr. Dibango’s worldwide hit was an internationalist piece of funk.

With his terse, dryly insistent saxophone lines answering his own chanted vocals, a tricky stop-start beat and a scrubbing rhythm guitar, “Soul Makossa” arrived at the dawn of the disco era and made its way to dance floors and R&B radio stations across the United States, Europe and Africa.

Michael Jackson would later quote its refrain in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” a track on his 1983 album, “Thriller,” one of the best-selling records of all time; that song was in turn sampled by Rihanna for her 2007 “Don’t Stop the Music.” Mr. Dibango sued them both in 2009; Mr. Jackson’s estate settled out of court. The song has also been widely sampled in hip-hop.

Although Mr. Dibango was best known for “Soul Makossa” and a 1984 hit, “Abele Dance,” there was much more to his career. He recorded and toured prolifically, appearing worldwide and collaborating with musicians including Herbie Hancock, Fela Kuti, Peter Gabriel, Angélique Kidjo, Youssou N’Dour, the Fania All-Stars and Sinead O’Connor. In a 2017 interview with the BBC, Mr. Dibango took pride in the eclecticism of his music.

“You’re not a musician because you’re African,” he said. “You’re a musician because you are musician. Coming from Africa, but first, musician.”

Emmanuel N’Djoké Dibango was born on Feb. 10, 1934, in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon. His father was a civil servant; his mother was a dressmaker. He grew up listening to Protestant church music, local traditional music and Westernized pop.

At 15 he was sent to Europe to study classical piano and music theory in Paris and Brussels. But he was drawn to jazz, and he began playing saxophone in the early l950s.

When he started performing in cabarets and jazz clubs in 1956, his family cut off his allowance. In Belgium, he began working with musicians from the Belgian Congo (which would be renamed Zaire after gaining independence in 1960 and then the Democratic Republic of Congo). He worked with African Jazz, the group led by Le Grand Kalle (Joseph Kabasele), in Leopoldville (later renamed Kinshasa) in the early 1960s before returning to France. By the late 1960s he was leading his own band in Paris.

“Soul Makossa” was originally the B-side of a single celebrating Cameroon’s national soccer team. According to “Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco” (2005), by Peter Shapiro, the New York City disc jockey David Mancuso found a copy in a West Indian record store and played it at the Loft, a pioneering disco space, and the influential radio host Frankie Crocker put the song in heavy rotation on WBLS. Soon there were more than a dozen cover versions, as the imported original disc sold out. Atlantic Records licensed Mr. Dibango’s original, which reached the American pop Top 40 in 1973.

The song opened a worldwide touring and recording circuit for Mr. Dibango. He collaborated widely: with the reggae producers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare in Jamaica, with Serge Gainsbourg in Paris, with the bassist and producer Bill Laswell in the group Deadline in the United States. In 1992 he recorded “Wakafrica,” an album of African hits with guest appearances by King Sunny Ade, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Salif Keita, Papa Wemba, N’dour, Ms. Kidjo and others.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Dibango’s extensive catalog includes film scores, jazz standards, reggae, pop and hip-hop. In 2017 he released “M & M,” a collaboration with a jazz saxophonist from Mozambique, Moreira Chonquiça, and in 2018 he released “Cubafrica,” a collaboration with the Cuban group Cuarteto Patria. Many of his other albums fused jazz, funk, African instruments, and dance beats — electronic or hand-played — behind his terse melodic lines.

“Sound is a magma. You have to give it a form. It’s never the same,” Mr. Dibango said in a 1991 interview with UNESCO Courier magazine. “In music there is neither past nor future, only the present. I must compose the music of my time, not yesterday’s music.”

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