MANU DIBANGO 1933-2020

Manu Dibango, who has died of Covid-19 aged 86, was a saxophonist and singer whose distinctive fusion of jazz and funk with traditional music from his native Cameroon made him a leading figure of the world music scene.

The standout moment of a six-decade career was probably his 1972 hit Soul Makossa — over which he successfully sued Michael Jackson.

"Sax is sexy," he once said. "I play other instruments too, but my voice sounds best through a saxophone."

Emmanuel N'Djoké Dibango was born into a Protestant family on December 12, 1933 in Douala, Cameroon's largest and wealthiest city. His father, a civil servant, was a member of the Yabassi ethnic group while his mother, a fashion designer, came from the Duala people. Their union was not, in general, looked upon favourably. In his autobiography Dibango said that he did not fully identify with either grouping.

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He was educated first at the local village school, and then a colonial school, where he learnt French. In 1944 the school was chosen to perform the greeting ceremony when the French president, Charles de Gaulle, visited the country.

Models present creations for Franck Sorbier's Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2018 fashion collection while saxophonist Manu Dibango performs in Paris. Photo / AP
Models present creations for Franck Sorbier's Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2018 fashion collection while saxophonist Manu Dibango performs in Paris. Photo / AP

His first serious exposure to music was in church, then in 1949 his parents sent him to study in France; he took up the piano, vibraphone and saxophone and played in jazz clubs.

His musical career began in earnest when he joined the seminal Congolese band African Jazz, with whom he toured Europe. He made Paris his home: "The blacks that we saw [in France] were either boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson, or jazzmen," he recalled, "so we ended up going down to the cellars in Paris, where we could see the [Louis] Armstrongs and the Count Basies with whom we identified."

He wrote Soul Makossa — "makossa" means "dance" in the Duala language — for the 1972 African Nations Cup, which was hosted for the first time by Cameroon, and it became a global hit after it was picked up by black radio stations in New York (its influence can be readily heard in Kool and the Gang's disco classic Jungle Boogie).

He had another big hit in 1978 with the 12-inch version of his disco song Big Blow.

Dibango recorded more than 70 albums, and among the musicians with whom he collaborated were Herbie Hancock, Fela Kuti, Peter Gabriel, Angelique Kidjo, Sly and Robbie, Youssou N'Dour, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, King Sunny Ade and Sinead O'Connor.

He was the first chairman of the Cameroon Music Corporation, for whom he acted in numerous disputes about royalties, and in 2004 he was appointed a Unesco Artist for Peace.

In 2009 he filed a lawsuit claiming that Michael Jackson's song Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', the opening track on his Thriller album, used the hook from Soul Makossa — "Mama-say, mama-sa, ma-ma-ko-ssa" — without his permission.

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Jackson admitted lifting the line and settled out of court. Dibango also sued Rihanna, who sampled the hook from Jackson's track for her song Don't Stop the Music, but eventually withdrew his claim.

In 2010 Dibango was made a Chevalier of the Legion d'honneur. In 2014 he played an 80th birthday concert at Olympia in Paris, and in 2019 he took his Symphonic Safari on tour, mixing jazz and classical music.

"You're not a musician because you're African," he told the BBC in 2017. You're a musician because you are a musician. Coming from Africa, but first, musician."

Dibango, who died in a Paris hospital six days after being taken ill with the coronavirus, was married to Coco, who died in 1995. He is survived by their two daughters and a son.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website