NEW YORK — Manu Dibango, a saxophonist from Cameroon whose 1972 single “Soul Makossa” made modern African music a clear presence on Western pop charts, died Tuesday in a hospital in France. He was 86.
His Facebook page said the cause was COVID-19 but did not say where in France he died. Dibango had lived in France for some time.
Although “Soul Makossa” was named after makossa, a Cameroonian style of music, and its lyrics were in the Douala language of Cameroon, Dibango’s worldwide hit was an internationalist piece of funk.
With his terse, dryly insistent saxophone lines answering his own chanted vocals, a tricky stop-start beat and a scrubbing rhythm guitar, “Soul Makossa” arrived at the dawn of the disco era and made its way to dance floors and R&B radio stations across the United States, Europe, and Africa.
Michael Jackson would later quote its refrain in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” a track on his 1983 album, “Thriller,” one of the best-selling records of all time; that song was in turn sampled by Rihanna for her 2007 “Don’t Stop the Music.” Dibango sued them both in 2009; Jackson’s estate settled out of court. The song has also been widely sampled in hip-hop.
Although Dibango was best known for “Soul Makossa” and a 1984 hit, “Abele Dance,” there was much more to his career. He recorded and toured prolifically, appearing worldwide and collaborating with musicians including Herbie Hancock, Fela Kuti, Peter Gabriel, Angélique Kidjo, Youssou N’Dour, the Fania All-Stars and Sinead O’Connor. In a 2017 interview with the BBC, Dibango took pride in the eclecticism of his music.
“You’re not a musician because you’re African,” he said. “You’re a musician because you are musician. Coming from Africa, but first, musician.”
Emmanuel N’Djoké Dibango was born Feb. 10, 1934, in Douala, Cameroon. His father was a civil servant; his mother was a dressmaker. At 15 he was sent to Europe to study classical piano and music theory. But he was drawn to jazz, and he began playing saxophone in the early 1950s. When he started performing in cabarets and jazz clubs in 1956, his family cut off his allowance.
“Soul Makossa” was originally the B-side of a single celebrating Cameroon’s national soccer team.