With his bald head and dark glasses, Manu Dibango is the epitome of cool. And for over 30 years he’s been one of the giants of world music—long before it had a name—this Cameroonian whose music sounds as powerful and appealing in America as it does in Europe or Africa.
Born in 1933 in Douala, Cameroon, Dibango grew up with church music, the only kind allowed by his parents. Secretly, he began to learn a couple of instruments, but it wasn’t until he was in his teens that music began to play a big part in his life.
By then Dibango’s parents had sent him to France to further his education, with the intent of turning him into a professional man. But all began to be lost when he started studying piano. From there a fellow student, Francis Bebey, introduced him to American jazz, especially Duke Ellington.
Now he had a musical grounding, and also a focus. But the real turning point came in 1953 when “a friend lent me his saxophone and he told me, as I had nothing to do, to go and practice this instrument. So I took the saxophone, without knowing that maybe something was going to happen with this thing. After starting to practice by myself, then I had a professor for two years.”
Soon he was playing jazz clubs around the northeast of France, often the only black playing music in the area. In 1957 he quit his studies and moved to Belgium to make his living as a musician, playing “any type of music,” first as a sideman, then a bandleader. The city was good to him, and he found success and money.
In 1960, while playing at Les Anges Noir Club in Brussels, he met the future leaders of the Congo, there to negotiate his country’s independence from Belgium. Part of the delegation was Joseph Kasabele, the leader of Africa Jazz, one of the leading Congolese rumba bands.
Dibango was invited to return to the Congo with Kasabele and join African Jazz for a marathon recording session: 40 songs in just two weeks. Before he left, however, he released his first disc, African Soul, which staked out a very personal territory where African music, jazz and the emerging form that would become soul all met.
He was supposed to stay in the Congo, or Zaire, as it was about to become, for two months of recording; he ended up remaining for two years, even opening his own Tam Tam club. It was in the country that he really began to synthesize his style, and after a short sojourn back in Cameroon Dibango returned to France,<
The Rough Guide to Manu Dibango (World Music Network, 2004)
A solid introduction to Dibango’s work, with the emphasis on the ’70s and ’80s. Curiously, no “Soul Makossa”; instead there’s the extended, jammy “Makossa Blow” from 1992. But the album still transmits the heart of his art.
Wakafrica (Warner Brothers, 1994)
Albums with plenty of guests often mean a lack of inspiration, but this works very well as a piece of pan-African travel, teaming Dibango with King Sunny Ade and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Youssou N’Dour among others. Plus the remake of “Soul Makossa” swings every bit as much as the original.
Mboa’Su (JPS, 2000)
Proof that the Big Man hasn’t lost a step along the way. He can move from the Afrobeat Fela Kuti tribute of “Big Blow/Abélé Mood” (the first a remake of an old cut) to the African gospel of “Sangu Yésu Christo” with remarkable ease, and along the way every note’s a pleasure.
Soul Makossa (Unidisc, 1994 reissue of 1972 LP)
The original, and still the best. “Soul Makossa” in all its raw glory, the piece that took Dibango global, along with 12 other tunes that hit the spot at mixing African music, soul and jazz. Dibango’s vision was obviously already fully formed at this point.
Africadelic: The Best Of Manu Dibango (Wrasse, 2003)
A different best-of collection, showcasing other sides of Dibango’s music not exposed on the Rough Guide release. The emphasis is on the very early years—indeed, almost everything dates from before 1973, when he was still mostly working as a sideman, making it a strong exploration of his roots.