Emmanuel N’Djoké “Manu” Dibango (12 December 1933 – 24 March 2020) was a Cameroonian musician and songwriter who played saxophone and vibraphone. He developed a musical style fusing jazz, funk, and traditional Cameroonian music. His father was a member of the Yabassi ethnic group, while his mother was a Duala. He was best known for his 1972 single “Soul Makossa”. He died from COVID-19 on 24 March 2020.
Dibango’s uncle was the leader of his extended family. Upon his death, Dibango’s father refused to take over, as he never fully initiated his son into the Yabassi’s customs. Throughout his childhood, Dibango slowly forgot the Yabassi language in favour of the Douala. However, his family did live in the Yabassi encampment on the Yabassi plateau, close to the Wouri River in central Douala. While a child, Dibango attended Protestant church every night for religious education, or nkouaida. He enjoyed studying music there, and reportedly was a fast learner.
In 1941, after being educated at his village school, Dibango was accepted into a colonial school, near his home, where he learned French. He admired the teacher, whom he described as “an extraordinary draftsman and painter”. In 1944, French president Charles de Gaulle chose this school to perform the welcoming ceremonies upon his arrival in Cameroon.
In 1949, at age 15, Dibango was sent to college in Saint-Calais, France. After that he attended the lycée de Chartres where he learned the piano.
He was a member of the seminal Congolese rumba group African Jazz and has collaborated with many other musicians, including Fania All Stars, Fela Kuti, Herbie Hancock, Bill Laswell, Bernie Worrell, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, King Sunny Adé, Don Cherry, and Sly and Robbie. He achieved a considerable following in the UK with a disco hit called “Big Blow”, originally released in 1976 and re-mixed as a 12″ single in 1978 on Island Records. In 1998, he recorded the album CubAfrica with Cuban artist Eliades Ochoa. At the 16th Annual Grammy Awards in 1974, he was nominated in the categories Best R&B Instrumental Performance and Best Instrumental Composition for “Soul Makossa”.
The song “Soul Makossa” on the record of the same name contains the lyrics “makossa”, which means “(I) dance” in his native tongue, the Cameroonian language Duala. It has influenced popular music hits, including Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie”. The 1982 parody song “Boogie in your butt” by comedian Eddie Murphy interpolates Soul Makossa’s bassline and horn charts while “Butt Naked Booty Blues” by 1990s hip-hop group Poor Righteous Teachers heavily samples its musical bridge and drum patterns.
He served as the first chairman of the Cameroon Music Corporation, with a high profile in disputes about artists’ royalties. Dibango was appointed a UNESCO Artist for Peace in 2004.
His song, “Reggae Makossa”, is featured on the soundtrack to the 2006 video game Scarface: The World Is Yours. In August 2009, he played the closing concert at the revived Brecon Jazz Festival.
In 1982, Michael Jackson used the “Ma ma-se, ma ma-sa, ma ma-kossa” hook from Dibango’s 1972 single “Soul Makossa” without his permission and without credit for the song “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” from his superhit 1982 album Thriller. When Dibango found out he considered to sue the megastar but Jackson was fast to admit that he borrowed the line and the matter was settled out of court.
In 2007, Rihanna sampled the same hook from Jackson’s song for her track “Don’t Stop the Music” and did not credit Dibango. When Rihanna had asked Jackson for permission to sample the line, he allegedly approved the request without contacting Dibango beforehand. In 2009, Dibango sued both singers. Dibango’s attorneys brought the case before a court in Paris, demanding €500,000 in damages and asking for Sony BMG, EMI and Warner Music to be “barred from receiving ‘mama-se mama-sa’-related income until the matter is resolved”. The judge ruled that Dibango’s claim was inadmissible: a year earlier, a different Paris-area judge had required Universal Music to include Dibango’s name in the liner notes of future French releases of “Don’t Stop the Music”, and, at the time of this earlier court appearance, Dibango had withdrawn legal action, thereby waiving his right to seek further damages.
In July 2014, he made an 80th anniversary concert at Olympia, France which was broadcast by TV5Monde.
On 8 September 2015, Michaëlle Jean, Secretary General of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, honoured Manu Dibango with the title of Grand Témoin de la Francophonie aux Jeux Olympiques et Paralympiques de Rio 2016 (Special Representative of Francophonia to the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games).
On 24 March 2020, Dibango died from COVID-19 in Paris.