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MANU DIBANGO,
1933-2020

Manu Dibango, the saxophonist from Cameroon whose “Soul Makossa” introduced global audiences to African jazz-funk in the early 1970s, is one of the first international stars to die of the coronavirus. He was 86.

Dibango died today in Paris and his death was announced on his Facebook page. A tribute to his memory will be organized when possible, the message read.

In a career that stretched over six decades, he collaborated with Herbie Hancock, Fela Kuti, Sly & Robbie, King Sunny Ade, Eliades Ochoa and Bill Laswell, and on one of his earliest recording, backed the blues guitarist T-Bone Walker.

His music has been sampled by Kanye West, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Wyclef Jean and others; “Soul Makossa” has been recorded by everyone from Fania All-Stars to Les Nubians to The Ventures. Michael Jackson employed its famous vocal refrain in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”; Jackson and Dibango settled a lawsuit over the hook out of court in 2009.

Born in the Cameroonian city of Douala, Dibango learned to play saxophone while attending high school in France. After failing his high school exams, he moved to Belgium and started playing in nightclubs.

There he joined the Congolese rumba group African Jazz, which had several hits in Europe before disbanding in 1963. He started recording on his own in 1968, but it wasn’t until “Soul Makossa” was released in 1972 that he broke through.

Released as a single, “Soul Makossa” was first heard in the U.S. at dance parties in New York. WBLS DJ Frankie Crocker secured a copy and started playing it on air. Demand was so high—and supply so scarce—more than 20 versions of the song were released before Atlantic Records was able to license and release the original. The Atlantic-released single peaked at #35 in 1973, becoming what many consider the first “disco” hit.

Besides the Jackson song, the refrain of “ma-mako, ma-ma-sa, mako-mako ssa” has been heard in scores of records, among them KC & the Sunshine Band’s “Do It Good,” Jay-Z’s “Face Off,” Will Smith’s “Gettn’ Jiggy Wit It” and Childish Gambino’s “You See Me.”

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