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Manu Dibango 1933–2020

The Cameroonian saxophonist and “Soul Makossa” star succumbs to coronavirus at 86

Manu Dibango
Manu Dibango at Festival les Escales, Saint-Nazaire, France, July 2019 (photo: Selbymay)

Manu Dibango, the treasured Cameroonian Afro-jazz saxophonist best known for his surprise 1972 hit “Soul Makossa,” died in Paris, France, from complications of COVID-19 on March 24 after a brief hospitalization. He was 86.

The death was confirmed on Dibango’s official Facebook page. Six days earlier on the same page, it was announced that the musician had been recently admitted to hospital due to the coronavirus, but that he was “resting well and calmly recovering.”

Dibango, who played vibraphone as well as alto and tenor saxophones, was a key figure in the development of post-World War II African jazz—indeed, he was a member in the 1950s of the groundbreaking Congolese ensemble called African Jazz.

Born on December 12, 1933 in Douala, then-French Cameroon, Dibango began forging his own career in the 1960s, and with his 1968 solo recording debut Saxy Party kicked off an exploration of the intersections of jazz, funk, and African traditional music. “Soul Makossa”—released as the B-side of a song commemorating Cameroon’s advancement in the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament—featured lyrics in Dibango’s native language of Duala. These lyrics (including the distinctive chant “Mama-ko, mama-sa, mama makossa”) ultimately proved to be part of the song’s hook, helping launch it to worldwide success and the Billboard Top 40.

“Soul Makossa” made Dibango a star and proved widely influential, inspiring countless imitations—at least two of which, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and Rihanna’s “Please Don’t Stop the Music,” would face infringement lawsuits from Dibango.

The saxophonist would go on to collaborate with musicians such as Don Cherry, Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, and Fela Kuti, among many others. He moved to Paris in the 1980s but remained an active presence on the African jazz scene as well as worldwide. Dibango continued working well into his eighties, appearing in 2019 on pianist Cheick-Tidane Seck’s 2019 album Timbuktu: The Music of Randy Brecker.

The Facebook post announcing Dibango’s passing stated that his funeral service will be strictly private and that a more public tribute will be organized “when possible.” In the meantime, those wishing to express condolences may send email to [email protected]

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.