In Memoriam: Manu Dibango (1933-2020)
It is with the greatest of sadness that we must report on the passing of the great African jazz musician, Manu Dibango, who was sadly felled by the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently ravaging the world. Dibango was 86 and left behind an incredible legacy of music. He, along with Fela Kuti is probably the artist most responsible for popularizing what came to be known as Afrobeat music in the West.
Dibango‘s Soul Makossa LP, released by Atlantic Records in the US in 1971 was an important touchstone for those interested in African music. Combining funk, jazz and various musical styles of Dibango‘s native Cameroon, the record was a catchy best seller that became a staple for crate diggers and samplers a decade later. And who can blame them? This was ecstatic dance music filled to the brim with tasty grooves and an unrelenting beat. Manu Dibango was born Emmanuel N’Djoké Dibango in Cameroon’s largest City: Douala. In 1933, the country was still under French colonial control. Dibango‘s father was very much a self-made man – the son of a farmer who had become a Civil Servant who had married a woman (a highly literate fashion designer and small business owner in her own right), from a rival tribe. The two were very encouraging of their only son’s musical interest, and willingness to cut against cultural norms.
Dibango took up the saxophone and the vibes, quickly becoming a band leader, first in the then popular Congolese-Rumba style and eventually developing his own funk-inflected style. His self-titled debut album was released in 1968 and would kick-start a relentless productive run. Indeed, Dibango released on average, a record a year, every year between 1968 and 2014, with several years containing multiple records. Dibango‘s formidable saxophone chops were quickly accepted in the West, and Dibango collaborated widely with both his fellow African musicians as well as many Western-artists. Collaborators over the years included such luminaries as Fela Kuti, Herbie Hancock, Bill Laswell, Bernie Worrell, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, King Sunny Adé, Don Cherry, and Sly and Robbie. This list alone feels like a veritable who’s who of the most important artists working in Afro-funk and jazz music of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
As well as making in-roads in the US and France (where Dibango chose to migrate), he also scored some big hits in the UK. His 1976 disco epic, “Big Blow” blew up the UK dance charts in 1978 when it was remixed. The track was a sweltering dance workout powered by Dibango‘s soaring and brassy saxophone. While Dibango had slowed down in recent years and had reached a ripe old age of 86, but his passing in the none-the-less tragic. Up until his death, Dibango remained a formidable and potent live act, capable of bumping even the most formidable dancefloors and perpetually backed by a powder keg of a live band behind him. No one deserves to be cut down by the Coronavirus and it is deeply sad that this pandemic will likely also see us marking the passing of several of our most beloved senior musical figures.
RIP Manu Dibango.