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World Music Legends

Manu Dibango

By Chris Nickson
Published October 9, 2005

Afropop

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 he began playing the saxophone. 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, 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, playing in a couple of different bands before releasing

Recommended Recordings

 

The Rough Guide to Manu Dibango (World Music Network)

Soul Makossa (Unidisc)

Africadelic: The Best Of Manu Dibango (Wrasse)