It was a sad day for African music lovers when news arrived that saxophonist Manu Dibango had died of coronavirus. In what was to be probably his last major interview, he talked to Bamuturaki Musinguzi about his life and music
I interviewed the great French-Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango with the Ugandan saxophonist Isaiah Katumwa and the South African diva Maraqana Siphokazi after he had performed at a tribute concert to the late great South African music icon, Hugh Masekela in Kampala. The concert was in celebration of the International Jazz Day on April 30, 2018.
At 84, Dibango was still versatile and energetic on stage and full of good humour, his characteristic laugh booming out. As he says in the interview, his intention was to carry on playing music until the end, which he did. The announcement of his death on 24 March from coronavirus saddened music lovers across the world.
The transcript of the interview is followed by an appreciation of Dibango’s life.
You have been playing music for the last 60 years. What keeps you going?
It is the love of music: no more, no less! I like fishing. I like a lot of things in my life. But the thing I like the most in my life is music. So, if I am not sick and I am in good health I will continue playing music up to the end. And when that end will happen I don’t know.
Where do you derive the inspiration for your music?
Nobody knows where their inspiration comes from. But when it comes you catch it and you try to translate it and to give that to the people. It is not easy because really with inspiration you are not the owner. The inspiration comes to you. When it comes really your work is to pull it together the best you can and present that to the people.
What inspired the writing of Soul Makossa? And what is the message behind it?
You see life is very funny because I have done many songs in my life but people say this is the greatest song. I did not go to the studio and said ‘okay I am going to do a hit’.
With a hit you are not the owner. The audience is the owner because it decides that is the song it likes. What is very funny is that everybody in the world at one time loves one song or the other – nobody knows why, including the man who wrote it. In my life I have written better songs but people like Soul Makossa so much.
What would you have been if you were not a musician today?
I don’t know. I liked music from the beginning. My mother was a music teacher. I started going to church when I was very young. But I liked church not because of what the preacher was saying – but the music.
How would you describe the music you play?
I cannot describe my music. I just try to propose to the people what I feel around the music because it is not to me to describe. It is to me to present. That is very different because today I am going in this way and tomorrow probably I will be going the other way.
You see what happened when I did Soul Makossa in 1972, in the same year, I was doing five different sorts of music; church music, dance music, movies music, television music and soul makossa. All these in the same year but coming in different directions.
Some musicologists argue that the Congolese rumba rhythm is the best modern music genre that has come out of Africa. Do you agree?
I was lucky I spent two years of my life in Leopoldville [Kinshasa] playing with the band called African Jazz headed by Kabasele, who wrote the song Indépendance Cha-Cha and so forth.
There I learnt to play that music because people were playing and people were dancing at the same time. So it was easy for you to learn. But rumba is made up of African and Cuban influences. The word rumba is Cuban. So people got inspiration from listening to Cuban music. And after that they added the Cuban influence with the African influence thus making the Congolese rumba, which is very popular all around Africa and some parts of Europe too.
African governments have been criticised for neglecting culture by not funding it. What is your view?
That is one of the problems. That is really a big problem all over Africa because they do not give importance to culture. You see in life what remains is always culture. In any country what people remember is culture. Now they are dealing with something probably different. I don’t know.
But you are right when you say that they do not pay importance to culture. But what we can ask African governments to do is to pay attention to culture. We are culturally very rich in our countries. We are the only ones who do not know that we are rich. We forget where we are coming from and that is a big problem.
How do you compare music in Africa in the 60s, 70s and today?
Music is changing with the periods. Of course we have the nostalgia of the 1960s and 70s music because there were a lot of melodies. Now there is a lot of technology and most musicians are going to be slaves of this technology.
They must pay attention to that because they always end up having the same rhythm as result of machine, machine, machine, machine – that is very dangerous. That is why we try to play human music. We have got less electronic music and more acoustic music.
How does it feel like you being among the pioneers of African music in the West with the Ghanaian band Osibisa in the 60s and late 70s promoting African music in the West?
I like Osibisa very much because we started at the same time. We were playing together in New York and Washington. They started something different coming from Ghana and Nigeria. I mean their mix was really fantastic. Their album covers were fantastic. And it is a style that some young people have not continued with. It was really good time for African music.
How would you pay tribute to Hugh Masekela?
I knew him. He was playing the horn. He was popular in English-speaking countries. I was playing the horn and popular in French-speaking countries. So it was time for us to meet. And when we met we liked staying together and we had good time up to the end. He is my man. In Africa, Hugh was the man I admired the most.
Do you plan to retire from music soon?
What for? Why do you want me to retire? I am still in love with music. I will play music up to the end.
The life of Manu Dibango
The great saxophonist Emmanuel N’Djoké ‘Manu’ Dibango was born on December 12 1933 in Doula in what was then French-administered Cameroon. His father was Michel Manfred N’Djoké Dibango.
In his obituary to Dibango in the UK’s The Guardian newspaper, Graeme Ewens, a world authority on African music and at one time the music correspondent for New African magazine, writes that Dibango “covered a vast spectrum of styles, from traditional African roots music to jazz, soul, Afrobeat, reggae, gospel, French chanson, Congolese rumba, salsa and solo piano. Most importantly, Dibango was a founding father of funk.”
In 1972, Dibango released Soul Makossa which became an international hit. It inspired many other musicians and was adapted by several artists.
In 2009, he filed a lawsuit claiming that the lyric line Mama say, mama sa, ma ma ko ssafrom the single had been used by Rihanna for Don’t Stop the Music and Michael Jackson for his Wanna be Starting Something. Jackson settled out of court for a reportedly handsome sum.
Ewens writes: “Dibango was an unmistakable figure, with shaved head, shades, a benign grin and a deep, reverberating laugh. The instantly recognisable tone of his music was always swinging, melodic and invigorating. Although best known as a saxophonist, Dibango was also a consummate keyboard and vibraphone player and a great arranger, who could get the best from a quartet or a 28-piece orchestra.”