Manu Dibango – Electric Africa
In 1973, at 40 years of age, Manu Dibango did something almost unheard of for an African artist – he had a pop hit. Especially on the East Coast, his song “Soul Makossa” became an enormous hit (even though it only charted at #35 pop) with its infectious chant, unstoppable rhythm and a sax part that owed more to King Curtis than King Sunny (who was just starting to play clubs in Nigeria at the time).
Manu lived a life that cried out for fusion. Born in Cameroon, he studied classical piano, flute and guitar. Like so many people in Francophone Africa, he was sent to Paris in his late teens to finish his education, studying philosophy and aiming at becoming a teacher. Suddenly a whole new world opened up.
Manu spent seven years in Paris, working more on his music than his other studies. He moved to Brussels and became a fixture on the jazz scene. Here, he took up the saxophone and by the early 50s, he was doing much live and session work, and developing a hybrid sound encompassing jazz and the indigenous music of Cameroon that he grew up on.
The late 50s and early 60s were a heady time in both Francophone Africa and in the European countries that had colonized Africa. The Central African Republic, The Congo, the Ivory Coast, Zaire, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Rwanda, Tunisia, Chad, Dahomey (Benin), Burkina Faso, and his Native Cameroon all became independent of France or Belgium at that time.
Manu spent much of his time traveling between Europe and Africa. He worked with bands from the Congo and Zaire, opened up a nightclub in Cameroon and ran the house band, played piano for French pop star Nino Ferrer. By 1968, he was back in Paris and working in the studios.
In 1971, on a visit to Cameroon, the President asked Manu to write a song for the Cameroon team in the African Football championship. For the singles b-side, he did a toss off song called “Soul Makossa.” By 1973, the song took hold of New York radio at the height of the “black consciousness movement” and the Latino “Newyorican movement.”
He has since describe the song “as a bridge connecting America with the motherland…during the ‘place is beautiful’ period.”
In addition to selling hundreds of thousands of copies of the record, he played such huge venues as Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden. For several years after, he based himself in New York.
By 1985, Dibango was back in Paris, one of the most successful African artists in the world. His fame and reputation as a fine and open-minded musician opened many interesting opportunities for him. He had recorded with the Jamaican nonpareil rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and the primo New York salseros, the Fania All Stars. Electric Africa was yet another several avenues of exploration.
This album hooked Manu and his band, the Soul Makossa Gang up with New York avant garde producer Bill Laswell, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, Parliament-Funkadelic keyboard player Bernie Worrell, Pan African synthesist Wally Badarou, New York guitarist Nicky Scopelitis, African drummer Aiyb Dieng, and Malian kora virtuoso Mory Kante.
Bob Musso, the engineer on Electric Africa recalled that, “Some of the Manu Dibango record, there was already a structure and an idea. He came in and improvised melodies or phrases around a rhythm track foundation, and we filled in the gaps later with a Fairlight track or a tape effect.”
This means of working gave Manu and Laswell license to fuse synthesizers and kora, talking drums and samples, ngoni and electric guitar. What it all boils down to is world beat in its truest sense.
Electric Africa remains one of Manu’s strongest albums and a precursor to such other great music as Wakafrika nearly a decade later. His deep growl of a honey and sandpaper voice and the energetic honk of his saxophone merge with the seamless samples and the myriad hand percussion and overt funkiness of his band. Herbie Hancock plays on three of the four tracks, contributing an amazing electric piano solo on the title track and interacting with Manu’s sax while weaving to the warp of Mory Kante’s kora during “L’arbre a Palabres.” Similarly but more subtly, Laswell, Badarou and Worrell play dueling synthesizers in and around the band throughout ”Pata Piya.”
Albums like Electric Africa have many critics bemoaning the dilution of non-western music. He has several answers to this. “Do you lose your African identity because you wear shoes or drive a car? I am a musician of African origin. One shouldn’t consider me only an African musician because when we talk of African musicians it can be an honor, but also a way of being labeled forever. The music that I play is, let’s say, my own personal melting pot of music. I play what I feel and I would call that Afro-music. You have to let your imagination travel.”