Manu Dibango, the acclaimed Cameroonian saxophonist whose 1972 hit, “Soul Makossa,” would later be sampled by Michael Jackson, Kanye West, and dozens of other musicians, died Tuesday due to complications from COVID-19. He was 86.
A note on Dibango’s Facebook page confirmed his death, as well as the cause (Dibango was hospitalized with Covid-19 in France last week). The note says the funeral would be a private family event, but suggests a tribute would be scheduled soon. Fans are also encouraged to send condolences to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dibango was born in Cameroon in 1933 and moved to Paris at the age of 15, where he began to play the saxophone and piano. By the early Fifties, he was gigging around Paris and would soon become a regular on the European jazz circuit. His recording career began in 1968, with a self-titled album, and in 1972, during a trip to New York, he would write and record his most famous song, “Soul Makossa.”
The song was originally just a B side to an original anthem Dibango had written to honor Cameroon’s success in — and hosting of — the 1972 Africa Cup of Nations football tournament. The song’s popularity grew, however, after famed disco DJ David Mancuso reportedly found a copy of the seven-inch single in a Brooklyn record shop and turned it into a local hit at his dance parties at famed New York club the Loft. The song was soon so in-demand, yet so hard to find, that bootlegs flooded the market. (At one point, nine different versions of “Soul Makossa” were on the Billboard chart at once.) The track also helped earn Dibango his only Grammy nominations — Best R&B Instrumental Composition and Best R&B Instrumental Performance, for his Soul Makossa LP.
In 1982, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones sampled and tweaked the song’s central refrain — “Ma-mako, ma-ma-sa, mako-mako ssa” — on Thriller‘s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” (Dibango was originally not credited on the song and sued Jackson, but the pair eventually settled out of court.) From there, the chant would become a hip-hop staple, appearing on tracks like Kanye West’s “Lost in the World,” Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Rhythm (Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts)” and Jay-Z’s “Face-Off.” Rihanna would also famously sample the track for her 2002 hit, “Don’t Stop the Music.”
Dibango was prolific throughout his career, touring regularly and often releasing multiple albums in a single year. He was still recording as recently as 2017, when he teamed with one of his musical progeny, Mozambican jazz saxophonist Moreira Chonguiça, for the collaborative album M&M. Over the course of his career, Dibango also collaborated with an array of artists like Peter Gabriel, Herbie Hancock, Fela Kuti, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Dibango was a pivotal part of the wave that helped bring African music to the world. In a 1995 interview with The New York Times, he spoke about watching the African scene’s old foothold in France disappear and become a global phenomenon as both the African diaspora spread and the continent began to shake off its colonial past.
“Now the African scene is no longer strictly Francophonic,” Dibango said. “The new ‘zero immigration’ policy makes it harder for the musicians to come to France to study and work. They go to London and New York, where the money is in any case. You can find African restaurants all over the United States now. What’s going to happen to the spirituality of African music remains to be seen, but it’s no longer France first. The artistic migration is going elsewhere. You cannot separate culture from politics. In my opinion, the entire Franco-African political game is changing. Africa is no longer a collection of ex-colonies. Africa is Africa.”