Born Emmanuel Dibango, February 10, 1934, in Douala, Cameroon; son of a civil servant and a dressmaker. Education: Received baccalaureate in France, c. 1956; took lessons in classical piano, c. 1949-54, and in jazz saxophone, 1954-56. Addresses: Record company--Giant Records, 111 N. Hollywood Way, Burbank, CA 91505.

The most widely known musician from the French West African nation of Cameroon, Manu Dibango was one of the pioneers of world music in the early 1970s and remained one of the most internationally celebrated African musicians into the mid-1990s. The Boston Globe considered his 1994 hit Wakafrika to be his "best album in years." Wakafrika also brought together African and European stars, including King Sunny Ade, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Peter Gabriel, and Sinead O'Connor.

Long recognized for combining African, American, European, and techno sounds, Dibango first achieved global fame in 1973 with Soul Makossa, through which he popularized makossa music, a Cameroonian form of early-century West African dance music. Living in Paris, in Douala, Cameroon, around Western and Central Africa, and later also in Jamaica and New York, Dibango has experimented with jazz, reggae, hip hop, and electric music throughout his prolific career.

Although Dibango has been criticized at times for having a foreign sound--foreign from African, European, and American perspectives--he has strived for a musical universality inflected by his own identity. "What contribution have I made?" he asked himself in an interview by the UNESCO Courier in 1991. "I have built a bridge between my starting point and my curiosity. I contribute a sound which is unmistakably African. I add my difference."

Born Emmanuel Dibango on February 10, 1934, in Douala, Cameroon, to a civil servant and a dressmaker, Dibango first discovered his interest in music as a boy at home and in church. His mother led the women's choir in their Protestant chapel and sang with her dressmaker's apprentices and Dibango, while working during the days. "We sang all day long," recalled Dibango in an interview with the UNESCO Courier. "I was the conductor. What I liked most of all was to marshall the voices into a human instrument that sounded right and true."

In addition to church music, which included many classical European scores, Dibango also listened without his parents' knowledge or approval to modern music on their gramophone. There and at performances in Douala, Dibango as an adolescent heard African musicians playing an assortment of modern Western music and Cameroonian styles, including initiation music, with drums and wooden instruments, and "assico," percussive dance music played by guitar bands.

Hearing these bands, Dibango gained early exposure to "makossa," a modern Cameroonian version of West African highlife music. Highlife developed in the 1920s and 1930s from African musicians who incorporated original dance tunes into their performances for colonial audiences. The form drew on Western music, including jazz. As a West African response to merchant trade under colonial rule during the first half of the twentieth century, highlife represented an early accomplishment for modern Africa. "[Seen] in historical perspective the music ... assumes enhanced status as a cultural achievement," wrote West African music critics and historians John Collins and Paul Richards in their essay "Popular Music in West Africa." As a form, makossa did not gain international prominence until Dibango introduced the sounds in 1973 on his globally popular album Soul Makossa.

After moving to France with his family at 15 to study for a diploma, Dibango heard American jazz and began to consider himself a musician for his love of the art form. "How happy I was the first time I heard Louis Armstrong humming on the radio!" he told the UNESCO Courier. "Here was a black voice singing tunes that reminded me of those I had learned at the temple." For Dibango, jazz meant "a kind of freedom, fresh scope for the imagination."

In Paris during the 1940s, Dibango redirected his efforts from the piano toward the saxophone and absorbed, with a number of African musicians, the jazz, Latin American mambo and samba, Caribbean beguine, and Creole music permeating the city. At the end of the 1950s, Dibango moved to Brussels, Belgium, where during the 1960 negotiations for the independence of the Congo, he "experienced the tensions and clashes between whites and Africans," he stated in the UNESCO Courier interview.

Dibango also played with leading African musicians living in Europe, including Joseph Kabasele, a star singer from the Congo whose album, Independence Cha-Cha, became a hit in both Africa and Brussels when the Congo gained its independence in 1960 and became Zaire. Dibango performed in Zaire with Kabasele in 1961 and with the band African Jazz until 1963, when Dibango returned to his native Cameroon after a 12-year absence. Dibango began composing in Zaire, made his first recording there as a pianist for African Jazz, and appeared on over 100 singles.

In 1965 soul music was flourishing in Paris, and Dibango returned there to begin an international ascent as a saxophonist. After three albums, including his 1968 debut, Manu Dibango, Dibango's fourth record caught on big in the U.S. and across Europe and Africa. Released on Atlantic Records in 1973, Soul Makossa rode the phenomenal success of its title track to win a gold record for sales in the U.S. and a Grammy Award nomination for Dibango for best rhythm and blues instrumental performance of the year.

Henri Kala-Lobe described the album's stylistic success and enduring achievement in West Africa: "When Soul Makossa happened, it was a new lease of life for the eternal stylistic quarrel between traditional and modern. Its new sound, more electric and ragging, the using of alto-sax as main instrument, the jerky and spare rhythm and the horn riffs, gave a modern African soul approach to makossa." Similarly, on the basis of Soul Makossa and Dibango's earlier work in Paris and Brussels, Billboard's Emmanuel Legrand deemed Dibango "one of the founders of the world music movement."

Since that success, Dibango has released numerous albums of African dance music combined with jazz and rhythm and blues. In 1979 he experimented also with reggae, recording with some of the Wailers in Jamaica. Then, in 1984, he celebrated 30 years in the music industry with an "electric-pop" album called Abele Dance, according to John Collins in West African Pop Roots. Abele Dance exhibited the new hip-hop style from New York and was produced by Martin Meissonnier, whom Vogue described as "France's most active proponent of world music." The title single quickly became one of the top African songs of the year.

Still, Dibango received some criticism of his shows following Abele Dance. Lynden Barber of Melody Maker noted that Dibango's music was "less pure in source than ... other big-name African artists." In response to such questions of his authenticity as an African musician, Dibango asserted the freedom of all musicians to absorb and mix influences. "The musician, even more than the composer, hears agreeable sounds around him and digests them," Dibango said in an interview with the UNESCO Courier. "The voices of [Luciano] Pavarotti and Barbara Hendricks have taught me to love opera. In my imaginary museum they join Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker. I haven't found anyone better. Mozart doesn't stop me from being African. I like mixtures."

With his 1991 album, Live '91 on FNAC Music, Dibango proved his "continuing ability to build bridges between cultures and traditions," according to Legrand of Billboard. The Guardian's Robin Denselow agreed, lauding Dibango as "still one of the pioneers of the African music scene." The record featured Dibango's "cool jazz saxophone" along with an African chorus, drums, and south London rap.

The U.K.'s Sinead O'Connor and Peter Gabriel joined with African stars Youssou N'Dour, King Sunny Ade, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo to record with Dibango on his 1994 album, Wakafrika, released on the Giant label. This collaboration helped establish Wakafrika as "his best album in years," according to the Boston Globe, and "shows that Dibango can hold his own with the best of the younger generation."

Incorporating a remake of Gabriel's "Biko," which "simmers percussively, with rich soulful vocals that reach from Soweto to Memphis," according to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, and new versions of Dibango originals, including "Soul Makossa" and "Ca Va Chouia," the album "dazzles in its vitality," wrote Paul Evans of Rolling Stone. Wakafrika reached Number Seven on Billboard's Top World Music Albums chart in 1994.

Entering the mid-1990s, Dibango continued to grow as a musician. Hailed in 1991 in the Boston Globe as "perhaps the most consistent African pop artist working at cross-cultural experimentation," his high level of energy remained apparent. "Now 60, having generated more than 20 albums, Dibango hardly sounds like he's slowing down at all," Paul Evans wrote in Rolling Stone. Reviewing a performance at the Central Park Summerstage in July of 1994 in New York City, Jon Pareles of the New York Times agreed, noting, "He's still creating Afro-global fusions that are both slick and enjoyable." Judging also by the host of younger stars who joined him on his 1994 album, Dibango has clearly begun to exert a lasting influence on the world music scene.

by Nicholas Patti

Manu Dibango's Career

Played saxophone and piano in Parisian cabarets, c. 1954-56; met Joseph Kabasele, star Congolese singer, while leading house band at club Anges Noirs, Brussels, Belgium, late 1950s; joined Kabasele's band African Jazz on tour in Europe, 1960, and then in Zaire (formerly the Congo), 1963; led own band in Cameroon, 1963-65; reunited with Kabasele, backed up visiting African and African-American musicians, then worked as bandleader, Paris, 1965-73; recorded first album, Manu Dibango, 1968; international breakthrough with fourth album, Soul Makossa, 1973; directed Radio Orchestra of Cote d'Ivoire, 1975-79; signed with U.K. label Island, 1980; recorded with members of the Wailers, Jamaica, 1979-83; toured U.S., Europe, and Africa, mid-1980s--; released Wakafrica, Giant, 1994. Author of autobiography Trois Kilos de Cafe, 1990.

Manu Dibango's Awards

Gold album and Grammy Award nomination for best rhythm and blues instrumental performance, 1973, both for Soul Makossa.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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