For over 30 years Manu Dibango’s music has sounded as powerful and appealing to Americans as it does in Europe or Africa.
Born in 1933 in Douala, Cameroon, Dibango grew up with church music. By his teens, music began to play a big part in his life. His parents sent him to France to study, but American jazz was of greater interest. The turning point came in 1953 when he began playing the saxophone. Soon he was playing jazz clubs. In 1957 he moved to Belgium and soon found success.
In 1960, while playing in Brussels, he met Joseph Kasabele, the leader of Congolese rumba band Africa Jazz. Dibango returned to the Congo and joined them for a marathon recording session. He also released his first disc, African Soul, on which African music, jazz and the emerging soul sound all met.
He ended up remaining in Congo for two years, opening his own club and synthesizing his style. He then returned to France, playing in a couple of different bands before releasing Saxy Party in 1969, where the soul influence shone stronger than ever.
Dibango soon met his musical foil, guitarist Jerry “Bokilo” Malekani, who’d recently left the Congolese band Raco Jazz. All he needed was a stroke of luck to become a global figure.
That happened in 1972. Dibango managed to get the Cameroon government to pay for a record, “Mouvement Ewondo,” which praised the national soccer team, competing in the African Nations Cup. The flip side, “Soul Makossa,” was almost a throwaway, based on a local version of the traditional makossa dance.
Cameroon lost and the single was forgotten by most people, except Dibango, who saw something in “Soul Makossa.” Back in Paris, he recut the song. It was picked up by an American DJ, and suddenly Dibango had U.S. success—the song stayed on the Billboard chart for nine weeks, spawning seven cover versions. He came to America, playing at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem and sitting in with salsa greats the Fania All-Stars at Yankee Stadium.
Now truly a global name, he returned to Africa, but by the ’80s he’d returned to Paris. Since 1985, Dibango has been established as the elder statesman of African music, feted all over the globe. He still performs, albeit less frequently these days. But now in his 70s, he’s earned the right to slow down.