I am quarantined in my self-isolation, my self-imprisonment. I am listening to Big Blow, a funky, Afrobeat sound in memory of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the emperor of Kalakuta Republic whose death was a big blow to the world. Here, Fela is being eulogized by his friend, the Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango freshly gone, killed on March 24, 2020 by the rampaging Coronavirus at the age of 86. Victim of the latest virus with a coded name: COVID-19.
The virus rocking and jazzing up the whole world with death and trepidation. The virus that has abolished handshake and people now shake with their legs and elbows for safety purposes. The virus that has turned us all into surgeons wearing surgical masks to ward off death. The killer that is no respecter of persons, attacking princes and paupers alike. The virus that has gone viral, that has bulldozed its way on the front pages of the world news media, including the viral social media. The virus that has created a new global lingo called “social distancing” that distances us from everything that brings us together, collective as human beings. An evil virus that won’t even permit worshipping God in large groups of more than fifty people at a time, such that armed soldiers now enter churches to break up congregations from congregating. Is this the end time? Is this “the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper”? I am quoting T.S. Eliot in The Hollow Men.
In time of trouble, God has always been our first and last refuge, but this satanic virus straight from the pit of hell says you can’t go to the House of God to seek the face of God in this never-seen-before affliction. I came here to pay homage to the African musical legend Manu Dibango. I would not allow coronavirus to take over this column. Let me take you back to the year 1972 when Manu Dibango came out with the monster hit Soul Makossa. A sound that marries African groove with the Soul music sound of Black America, infectiously inviting everyone to the dance floor from the street of Harlem to the whole of America and the world at large, with Manu Dibango as the Pied Piper of Africa, rapping in his native tongue: “Mamasa, mamasa, mama-makossa.” The song won many awards and it became a classic in the afro-funk genre such that it was sampled by many big-name acts like Jay-Z, Tribe Called Quest, Fugees, Rihanna and Michael Jackson, the biggest of them all.
If you listen to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the best-selling album of all-time, you will hear the Manu Dibango influence in the opening track Wanna Be Starting Something with the King of Pop using Dibango’s beat and words: “Mamasa, mamasa, mama-makossa.” He didn’t take permission from Dibango before stealing his words. So Dibango threatened to sue. Eventually, it was settled out of court.
Soul Makossa is simply Dibango’s best. He has not been able to release any song that beats it. But still, he remains a musical giant, a genius ranked with the likes of Fela. I was watching a Manu Dibango interview and was happy to hear him talk about Fela.
“Fela was a good friend of mine,” he said. “Lagos is just one hour’s flight away. I used to go to The Shrine to see the man. I knew him very well. Cameroon is next door. We are next-door neighbours.
“Fela was a good composer. When you listen to Lady, you will know it’s a good composition. Fela was a politician. I am not a politician. I didn’t want to go to that mess. His music is a perfect mix of Yoruba, Highlife to James Brown—a kind of perfect mix.”
Manu Dibango loved Fela’s sound to the point where he did his cover version of Fela’s Lady and Shakara.
I was surfing Twitter when I came across this video of Manu Dibango and Angelique Kidjo rehearsing with Dibango playing his saxophone to the beat of Soul Makossa at the background. Angelique Kidjo has this to say about the old man who mentored her: “You’ve always been there for me from my beginnings in Paris to this rehearsal just two months ago. You are the original Giant of African Music and a beautiful human being.”
Dibango’s death is a reminder that we all will die one day because we are human. What matters is the legacy we left behind. Manu Dibango, the saxophonist will be remembered in his native Cameroon the way Nigerians cannot forget Fela whose music is now everywhere among today’s musical youths like Wizkid and Co borrowing or sampling Fela’s music without paying royalties.
Another great music star of yesteryear also died recently. Kenny Rogers, the American country music crooner. You know him. Most people about my age grew up listening to the country music of Kenny Rogers, Don Williams and Dolly Parton. My favourite Kenny Rogers song is Lady, written by a black man: Lionnel Richie. Music is colourful but it has no colour. It belongs to everyone—black, white, yellow, brown. Adieu Manu Dibango. And may the souls of all the departed rest in peace. Whether it’s death by Coronavirus or death by natural means, we all will die. One day, we will all fly away.