Dibango: Shock as COVID-19 claims Africa’s first high profile victim

6 months ago
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The veteran jazz singer and saxophone player has died after contracting the new coronavirus. He was 86.

Close associates had last week confirmed that he had been taken to a French hospital for an unrelated illness when he was diagnosed.

Dibango is one of the first worldwide stars to die as a result of COVID-19.

A statement from  his official Facebook page  reads: “It is with deep sadness that we announce the loss of Manu Dibango, our Papy Groove, who passed away on 24th of March 2020, at 86 years old, further to COVID-19.”

“His funeral service will be held in strict privacy, and a tribute to his memory will be organized when possible,” the message said.

Dibango is popularly known for his Grammy award-winning track Soul Makossa. The song went on to be sampled by various musicians including the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and popstar Rihanna.

Dibango was born on 10 February 1934 just outside Cameroon’s capital, Douala, almost at the foot of Mount Cameroon. His parents were Protestants, but from different denominations. His dressmaker mother came from the Douala people while his civil servant father came from the Yabassi.

He grew up predominantly with the music of the church – one uncle played harmonium – and French pop on the radio. Another uncle was a traditional guitarist, but Dibango’s father shunned him: “It was the music of the devil.”

When he was 15, Dibango attended boarding school in France – a three-week sea journey – to complete his baccalaureate. When I interviewed him in 2002 in Johannesburg over Parisian quantities of extremely strong black coffee – he was here for the Arts Alive festival – he said they had hoped he would eventually study medicine.

Dibango arrived in France with a gift for his French hosts: three kilos of coffee. (This was post-war France and real coffee was a luxury.) The incident gave him the title for his 1994 autobiography.

By 18, Dibango on mandolin had teamed up with fellow Cameroonian and guitarist Francis Bebey for school summer-camp jams. He was starting to haunt record stores and jazz clubs whenever he could escape. Dibango learned piano, and then another friend, Moybe Ndedi, gave him a beat-up old saxophone to practice on. Vibraphone came a bit later.

Fast forward to 1956, and Dibango had quit his studies and was performing full time and with some success.

Extensive club and television work and a first album followed. And then, in 1972, Dibango won a contest to compose the official Africa Cup of Nations anthem for the Indomitable Lions. That song is long forgotten – but the B side of the 45 rpm record was a number called Soul Makossa with a compelling rhythm feel. “There were no drum machines at that time. [We doubled the bass and drum lines] because we could not record the counter time that I wanted.”

Rather like the “discovery” of Africa, more than a year before New York DJ David Mancuso allegedly “discovered” the track, African football and music fans across the continent had made it a hit.

\By the following year Soul Makossa was in the Billboard Top 40. Motown and Atlantic labels vied to release a complete album. Dibango opted for Altlantic because “they had Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin … much closer to my sensibilities”.

After that, Dibango’s career soared. Discographical websites credit him with at least 197 albums. He spent time in Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic as well as Congo and Cameroon. His base in Paris was the launching pad for multiple international tours. He worked with Herbie Hancock, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Sly and Robbie in Jamaica and a panoply of West African music stars. He also successfully sued both Michael Jackson and Rihanna for ripping off the Soul Makossa chorus – the Jackson out-of-court settlement was rumoured to top two million francs.

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