In a scenario befitting these tumultuous times, a global pandemic was met with a mix of alarm, dismissal and half-baked punditry from the world’s sharpest
In the United States, COVID-19 became perhaps the first viral pandemic to break down partisan lines, a grim and immediate reminder of just how far the word ‘fact’ has fallen. That hubbub was, for a moment, almost enough to distract from the severity of the crisis at hand, and a blend of perceived catastrophizing and irresponsible carelessness only added to the confusion surrounding an appropriate response. I would like to think that any lingering doubt about the threat of COVID-19 died alongside one of Afro-jazz’s most important legends, the great Manu Dibango, who succumbed to the virus on March 24.
The legacy Dibango leaves behind is much greater than the sickness that took his life, and whilst much of his fame can be traced back to a single worldwide hit, that effort alone has shaped popular music in novel and unexpected ways. “Soul Makossa” is hardly the full extent of his talents – Dibango continued to record, collaborate and evolve well into the 21st century – but that track possesses a traceable musical footprint, one as unmistakable as it is pervasive, as irresistible as it was essential. In a world of ever-increasing division down lines of party, class, race and creed, Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” is a testament to the transcendental power of music.
Cameroonian Afro-jazz pioneer Manu Dibango came to the fore through a twist of fate, with his sax-laden dance jam hardly a concessional hit. The record was delivered in Duala, a ‘dialect continuum’ native to Cameroon, and it was originally pressed on the b-side of “Hymne De La 8e Coupe D’Afrique Des Nations,” a cut celebrating the Cameroonian soccer team’s performance in the 1972 Africa Cup of Nations. It was never intended as an international hit, and after the track bombed in Cameroon, Dibango himself recalled facing ridicule. Those fortunes started to change when Fiesta, a French label dedicated to African exports, had him re-record the cut in France.
An imported pressing of that French re-recording happened into the hands of one David Mancuso, a NYC tastemaker and DJ who was perusing a “small Jamaican store across the East River.” He put the record to work at The Loft, where he held famed house parties, kickstarting the track’s tenure as a discotheque favourite. Mancuso introduced it to Frankie Crocker, a prominent DJ, who “broke it on the air on New York’s WBLS-FM, a Mutual Black Network highly attuned to the disco sound.” The track penetrated both the airwaves and the club raves, sending Manu Dibango – previously an obscure-yet-talented Cameroonian jazz artist – to the forefront of pop culture. It’s not every day a newcomer makes #35 on the Billboard Hot 100, and at the time Dibango managed it, he was the first African artist to break the top 40.
It’s easy to understand why the record was such a catching find. The groove was undeniable and for many a club patron, exotic, foreshadowing the tight rhythmic elements that would define the disco decade. The telltale refrain – a stuttered delivery of the word “Makossa,” both a Cameroonian music tradition and the Duala word for “dance” – proved an easy chant, and the seemingly nonsensical nature of the phrase made it all the more memorable, if anything. The off-the-wall saxophone translates into any language, and that fusion of familiar funk, novel disco elements and crowd ready call-and-response was a potent mix. All that hit-in-waiting ever needed was a record in the right place at the right time, and as luck would have it, fate delivered.
On that twist of fate, “Soul Makossa” almost immediately inspired a string of covers, renditions and reinterpretations, with the first rehash – a version by Jamaican reggae outfit The Gaytones – appearing later in 1972. The next year brought forth new takes from acts such as Lafayette Afro Rock Band, Afrique and Babatunde Olatunji, and whilst the reimaginings would keep coming, none could land even a fraction of Dibango’s allure. The Cameroonian jazz track soon had versions hailing from Kenya, Nigeria, Latin America, France and the UK, and some less-than-honorable, seemingly opportunistic efforts from the US.
It was amongst this rush that the track was first sampled. Yes, you read that right: sampling as we now understand it wouldn’t be popularised until the late ‘80s, and even primitive forms of digital sampling wouldn’t become available until the end of the 1970s. In a sense, though, sampling has been occurring for decades, originally as a function of musique concrète, where the form was pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, however, it found a champion in an unlikely niche: novelty records.
The records of Dickie Goodman were awash with elementary examples of sampling, and in 1973, he released “Watergrate,” a comedic press conference that saw various high-profile figures ‘answer’ Goodman’s questions with soundbites from then-popular records. “Soul Makossa” was up first, with Goodman requesting a Presidential statement on ‘Watergrate,’ only to be met with confused stuttering: “Mama ko mama sa maka makossa…” These were humble beginnings, but beginnings they were, and as covers burst forth from across the globe, the original only rose in prominence.
The song’s irresistible refrains continued to appear throughout the 1970s, interpolated in Italian anthology sex comedies, reggae dance numbers and the funk-heavy debut from KC and the Sunshine Band. The big break, of course, wouldn’t come until 1982 when – a decade on – one Michael Jackson would incorporate the Cameroonian cadences into “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the opening track to the revolutionary Thriller.
Jackson’s interpolation of Dibango’s work was as much a boon as a burden, complicated by conflicting claims of authorship and, naturally, profits. There’s a seemingly unverified story that claims Jackson said his altered refrain was in Swahili, like the passage on later Bad cut “Liberian Girl,” though there’s little stock to such insistence: the jam is clearly pulled from Dibango’s proto-disco hit. A 1986 lawsuit pit Dibango against Jackson, the sole writer of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and the Cameroonian jazz saxophonist ultimately settled for a flat fee of 1 million francs, about $312 thousand US dollars today. The issue would rear its head 21-years-later, when Rihanna sampled “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” for #1 hit “Don’t Stop The Music,” and though Dibango took the pair to court, Rihanna acquired permission for her sample of Jackson’s work, and Manu’s complaint was deemed inadmissible.
If anything, however, that prominent uncleared sample reinvigorated Dibango’s legend. In 1982 – the very same year MJ brought the jam back to the forefront of pop culture – a Bronx-based electro-hop group put their own new-age spin on the Cameroonian classic. “Funky Soul Makossa” was the debut single from both Nairobi and The Awesome Foursome, and amongst the first records released on Streetwise Records, Arthur Baker’s first label. The classic tinkering artificiality of the instrumental aside, the elementary party-starting rhymes fit well with the interpolation of “mama ko mama sa maka makossa,” itself little more than a call to dance.
A fleeting fragment appeared on Steady B’s “Get Physical,” included on the Philadelphia trailblazer’s 1986 debut, before impacting Milli Vanilli, Slick Rick and Kool Moe Dee later in the decade. If any single year saw an explosion in high-profile flips, it was 1990: that single year saw invocations from Trenton’s Poor Righteous Teachers, Long Island’s Professor Griff (of Public Enemy fame) and Queens’ A Tribe Called Quest. The three samples spoke to the versatility of the record, with PRT and Griff sampling the crisp, percussive drum break, and Tip interpolating the stuttered melody itself.
“Soul Makossa” seemed almost tied to the city in which it took off, and though it proved a favourite up and down the East Coast, it didn’t make much of an impact in the wild, wild west. 1991 saw a Griff-less Public Enemy put the break to use on single “Can’t Truss It”; an unstoppable Geto Boys laced “Trophy” with Dibango’s horns; and an all-time hip-hop cosplay, Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch, managed to read the room. If Manu’s dance-ready cadences missed any movements, they were ones that were understandably hesitant: shades of West Coast gangsta rap and G-Funk were largely incompatible with that frantic floor-filler, and the East Coast’s post-Wu explosion saw the rise of hardcore and mafioso trends, neither all that reliant on soul, makossa or “Soul Makossa.”
If it was a lack of fancy footwork that had seen the staple recede into the crates, it was a resurgence that brought it back from the brink. In ‘95, The Fugees cut a Funkmaster Flex freestyle, with Lauryn Hill interpolating Dibango’s refrain. It was Outsidaz member Young Zee who brought the same sentiment to The Fugees’ debut album, The Score, spitting the passage on the slow and violent “Cowboys.” If that was the most brooding take on Dibango’s words, the very next flip – 1997’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” – might be the most in-step with their meaning.
‘97 saw those Afro-jazz rhythms make a mark on “Face Off,” a Jay-Z and Sauce Money joint, as well as “Intro/Court/Clef/Intro (Skit/Interlude),” the opening track from Fugees member Wyclef Jean’s first solo record, and the turn of the century saw a whole “Makossa”-scored dance break in the music video edit of a J Lo joint featuring Big Pun and Fat Joe. Eminem used the refrain to spur on D-12 in “Do Ray Me,” a brutal Ja Rule diss, and if you think that’s a curiously hardcore invocation of a lighthearted dance track, it also appeared on DMX’s “Right or Wrong (I’m Tired),” a 2006 diss track shooting for any and every critic.
Almost 30 years after Dickie Goodman inaugurated the sample, “Soul Makossa” returned to the novelty scene, the insistent groove and tinkering percussion the perfect base from which Miami bass act Buckwheat Boyz could build. That track, “Ice Cream and Cake,” was one of their most popular, though there’s no beating “Peanut Butter Jelly Time,” a meme as early as it was ubiquitous.
The “Makossa” helped to close out Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an interpolation gracing “Lost In The World,” and the very next year, fresh-faced Ye disciple Childish Gambino did the same on Camp track “You See Me,” though to a very different end. It’s admirable that 2014 Theophilus London single “Tribe” makes reference to the track’s far-flung origins, cutting through the ubiquity with a fleeting lyrical acknowledgment:
I got a Cameroon boo, but we lay low
We had our first kiss near the equator
And mama-se mama-sa, mama say so…”
It was just last year that Beyoncé – one of the biggest artists in the world – put Dibango’s dance chops to use, including the telltale horn refrain on “Déjà Vu (Homecoming Live),” recorded live at Coachella in April 2018 and released on Homecoming: The Live Album a year later.
It’s more than a little fitting, as Beyoncé has long championed blackness in her art, and Homecoming falls as the crown jewel atop her incredible decade. It fuses her music and her choreography; her presence and her story; pulling from the traditions of historically black colleges and universities to make a powerful, unadulterated statement, one particularly challenging for the Coachella crowd. It only makes sense that such an adored, essential and unlikely African hit would make the grade for what Billboard writer Naima Cochrane called “one of the greatest displays of blackness the mainstream has ever seen.”
“Soul Makossa,” whilst the most prolific of Dibango’s tracks, is far from the only track to be sampled from that 1972 album.
“Nights in Zeralda,” a slower, bass-driven joint complete with wordless chants and spacey organs, was put to use by producer 9th Wonder on 2005’s “Beat 18,” a difficult-to-source leftover from The Black Album sessions. “Weya,” also from the same album, made an early mark on Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force’s “Renegades of Funk,” released in 1983, before reappearing on Jungle Brothers’ classic “Straight Out The Jungle” in ‘88. It’s cropped up a couple of times since, on work from 7L & Esoteric and DJ Day, but the initial appearances – and subsequent flips – are almost certainly a result of the insane demand for “Makossa.”
It’s not hard to understand why. “Soul Makossa” was well in-step with the sounds that were coming to shape America, with the ascendent disco pulling from the liberating politics of the hippie era, the sounds of soul – particularly the work of Gamble & Huff, Barry White, and label Motown – and a diverse audience, including African-Americans, Hispanic and Latino-Americans and the LGBTQ community. Dibango’s track found a home in these clubs, at least in part due to the uncomplicated rhythms it put forth, and whilst the lyrics were foreign to almost all who heard them, they too espoused a simple, egalitarian truth: “dance.”
Manu Dibango led a life catalogued, his character and tenor distilled in the work of his long and storied career, but “Soul Makossa” stands alone. It’s more than just the track that made him a legend, endearing him to clubgoers and hipsters the world over. It’s more than just the track that launched a swathe of covers, helping introduce a new audience to non-Western music by way of a global sensation. “Soul Makossa” is the track that saw Dibango put his stamp on the twentieth century, his impact felt with each and every invocation. His simple, singular message bridges novelty records and J. Lo routines, linking electro-hop joints and Beyoncé arrangements.
“In music there is neither past nor future, only the present. I must compose the music of my time, not yesterday’s music,” Dibango told The UNESCO Courier in 1991. “What’s the point of curiosity, energy, movement, if we live for seventy years tucked away in a corner, bound hand and foot?”
Ain’t that the truth. Rest easy, Manu.