Afro-jazz legend Dibango dies of coronavirus

Thursday March 26 2020

Born on December 12, 1933, in Douala, Cameroon, Dibango is one of the few African musicians in the last century whose foray into the recording studios had nothing to do with poverty.

Cameroonian Afro-jazz icon Emmanuel N’Djoke Dibango passed on from a Paris hospital on Tuesday, his aides said.

Dibango, 86, was six days ago diagnosed with the novel coronavirus and hospitalised in Paris. Announcing the test then, the musician posted on his Facebook page that he was “resting well and calmly recovering” from the disease.

But on Tuesday morning, the page announced the passing on of one of Africa’s greatest saxophonists. His death comes four days after that of Congolese Soukous legend Auriel Miatsonama, aka Aurlus Mabele, whose daughter Liza Monet said had contracted the deadly virus that is ravaging the world – also from a Paris hospital.

“Dear family, dear friends, dear fans, a voice raises from far away. It is with deep sadness that we announce the loss of Manu Dibango, who passed away on March 24 at 86 to Covid-19,” the orbituary on his page said. “His funeral service will be held in strict privacy, and a tribute to his memory will be organised when possible.”

The start
Fondly called Manu Dibango, the widely acclaimed jazz saxophonist was a globe-trotting musician from the 1950s when he started out. He was among the founder members of African Jazz, led by ‘father of modern rumba’ Joseph Kabaselle, aka Grand Kalle.

In African Jazz, Dibango rubbed talents with Tabu Ley, Dr Nico Kasanda, Pepe Kalle and Sam Mangwana. This was one of Africa’s biggest music bands of the time and Dibango’s five years at the band were more than just a privilege for him.


This was where he honed his talent, a place where he started actualising his desire to forge a new musical sound by merging jazz with various subgenres and African popular traditions.
Dibango had conceived the idea in the early 1950s while in Belgium where he learned to play the vibraphone. Grand Kalle took as much interest in musical fusion and during their tour of Europe in 1960, the two used the moment to explore more into musical fusion.

When he left his “academy” (African Jazz) to return to Cameroon after five years with the vastly talented Congolese musicians, his conceptualisation and ability to assimilate the various aspects of traditional African music was on a level that many could only dream of.

He was able to expand his stylistic vocabulary to include various West African forms, most notably makossa, a Cameroonian genre based in his mother’s native Douala. Makossa, which means dance, became the form Dibango thrived on.

In 1965, he returned to Paris and hit his sax to its best. Given the chance to compose a song for African Cup of Nations, he put his fusion experiment to work. The result was Soul Makossa, a fusion of jazz, makossa and soul. It was a jackpot.

Multi-faceted blending
While Reggae Makossa, from the 1980 album Gone Clear, has the grooves that can bottle even a man of the cloak, it is the single he officially released in 1973 that got the world in a frenzy.

Soul Makossa was danced to in Europe and the Americas and got iconic Michael Jackson and Rihanna into “tapping it” when they needed to sound good.

Michael Jackson had to enter an out-of-court settlement with Dibango after he illegally referenced Soul Makossa in his “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.” Rihanna would later get permission from MJ to use the hook in her hit, “Please Don’t Stop the Music,” a request MJ approved but without first informing Dibango. A judge spared Rihanna the blushes.

Soul Makossa got Dibango travelling widely. Like in the 50s, he used the tours to learn more, to pick up and blend new sounds into his fusion.

He was not selfish so he opened his sax to collaborative projects with musicians who represented an array of Afro-Caribbean, African, and African American popular music genres. It is difficult to see a musician in the world who was as open to collabo as Manu Dibango.

As long as a musician had some grains he felt could be rubbed on his sax, Dibango gladly opened up to them. His extensive tour with American salsa band, Fania All Stars, in 1973 was a classic lesson in the art of learning.

The results saw him continue scoring hits with Seventies and Ibida among those eclipsing even his 1972 marvel in New Bell, a song that reverberated like a soulful heartbeat admiring a moonlit night.

In New Bell, Dibango is on such a grand exhibition of his sax you would think he was playing for the last time. Yet he was only getting started on a prodigious and multi-faceted journey.
Big Blow (1978), a funky-jazz, oozed like his ensemble of musicians were possessed in the studio. But possessed must have been the case, literally, with Vicky Edimo, in the Afro-jazz hit Sun Explosion, where he lets his bass shake the floor.

Dibango’s jazz blends continued to draw from a diverse pool of popular music. He intertwined rap, jazz and African roots in Polysonik (1991), got Senegalese Youssou Ndou to feature in Wakafrika (1994). Salif Keita (Mali), Angélique Kidjo (Benin), and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (South Africa), were the others to star with him.

Dibango is survived by two daughters; Georgia and Marva, and son Michel.

“My dear Manu Dibango, you have always been there for me from my beginnings in Paris. You are the original Giant of African Music and a beautiful human being. This coda of Soul Makossa is for you,” tweeted Angelique Kidjo, who had a rehearsal with Dibango two months ago.

Veteran Kenyan African music critic Fred Obachi Machoka said “Africa and indeed the entire music world is the poorer” with Dibango’s passing on.

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