Manu Dibango does not need to speak when he enters a room. His presence says enough. Walking in with a big smile and wearing his trademark sunglasses, the legendary Cameroonian saxophonist and vibraphone player oozes a charisma that belies his 83 years. Dubbed ‘The Lion of Africa’, in person Dibango is full of humour and wisdom. His ebullience is due to the passion he continues to harbour for music.
African Roots, International Influence
Dibango was born in Douala, Cameroon. It was in church where he found his connection with music, discovering the importance of ritual and song. When he was 15 years old, he was sent to France to finish school. Soon after arriving in Paris, he started learning classical piano and the mandolin. His need to connect with other young people from Africa led him to meet Cameroonian musician Francis Bebey, who introduced him to jazz. Influenced by masters such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Dibango started to explore jazz and picked up the saxophone in 1952.
“At first I didn’t like the instrument all that much. It tickled my lips. But aside from nice long walks, how better to past the time?” Dibango wrote in his autobiography, Three Kilos of Coffee. After playing jazz for many years in Paris and Brussels, Dibango mastered his unique style of traditional Cameroonian music, drawing on funk and jazz elements, towards the late 1960s.
Dibango is currently based in Paris, and he speaks interchangeably in French and English. He is a musician who refuses to have his music categorised. “Boundaries are for men, not music,” he said in a recent interview at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. “Music does not have any boundaries; people create these boundaries. I’m from Cameroon, but I’m not only going to play music from Cameroon.”
A Love for Collaboration
Dibango has released over 50 albums to date, many of which feature collaborations and duets. Throughout his long career, he has collaborated with artists as diverse as Fela Kuti, King Sunny Adé, Herbie Hancock, Don Cherry and Sly & Robbie. It is no surprise, then, that Dibango’s Cape Town performance was the result of another collaboration, this time with Mozambican saxophonist Moreira Chonguica.
Chonguica is Dibango’s perfect match. He is also an ethnomusicologist and his album Citizen of the World, released in 2009, fuses musical influences from a variety of sources. Chonguica echoes Dibango’s sentiment of music having no boundaries.
The pair first connected in 1999 at a chance meeting on Robben Island in Cape Town and have remained in touch ever since. Chonguica first posed the idea of collaboration and, after five years, the album M&M came to fruition. This album, which he produced and Dibango arranged, is a compilation of their favourite jazz standards, but done with African groove and rhythmic interpretations. The pair used the opportunity of performing at the festival to launch the album.
“Manu has always been a musical hero. My father used to listen to him a lot when I was a child,” Chonguica said when asked about the collaboration. “I was very young at the time and I did not even know I was going to play the saxophone or be a musician. I love his vision of music as a whole and his vision of the world with regards to the origins and future of music. Manu is indeed my hero. He is the youngest saxophone player I know, yet he is 83.”
He is the youngest saxophone player I know, yet he is 83
The Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2017
The Cape Town International Jazz festival is an annual mainstay on the calendar of many music lovers in South Africa and beyond. The festival attracts thousands and hosts local and international guests. Dibango and Chonguica and their band performed at one of the earliest slots of the festival; nevertheless a huge crowd pulled in early to see the legendary saxophonist perform. Chonguica, always bursting with great energy, arrived on stage first. He took the opportunity to address the crowd with a message about opposing xenophobia. The entire set was composed of tracks from the new album.
The band started with Tutu by Marcus Miller, following with a funky Afrobeat take on the popular jazz standard Take Five, written by Paul Desmond. The crowd went wild when Dibango walked onto the stage, first playing the vibraphone. Dibango greeted the crowd and mentioned that he was there because Chonguica had made it possible. They followed with Duke Ellington’s ballad In A Sentimental Mood. Guest vocalists Jaco Maria and Tracy Butler joined for the traditional Mozambican song Unga Hlupheki Ntata, composed by Fany Mpfumo.
Halfway through the performance, Dibango switched from vibraphone and the two saxophonists performed together with beautiful chemistry. Interacting with the audience, Dibango started to chant, “M and M and M and M!”, referring to the title of the album. He repeated the phrase until the crowd followed his lead and joined in the chant. They closed the groove-oriented funk set with the classic South African tune Nonto Sangoma, written by Zacks Nkosi.
Chonguica said this about the experience: “Performing with him is a blessing. It’s like the Pope doing a service for you. In studio, I had the privilege of having him arrange the music for our album; driving with him, eating food with him, hearing his dreams and his failures – it is something out of this world. Manu on stage is the maestro commander-in-chief of the army of sound. His ideas are so fresh and contemporary.”
As a musician you should be curious in essence. You should free yourself to music
More Than One Note
Tellingly, the pair did not perform Dibango’s infamous Soul Makossa, an upbeat version of which also appears on the new album. This is the song that catapulted Dibango to worldwide fame when it was first released in 1972. It was originally recorded as a praise song for the Cameroonian soccer team during the 1972 Tropics Cup tournament. When a club DJ in New York got hold of the track, it exploded onto the disco scene and the rest is history. Dibango has sued both Michael Jackson and Rihanna for using samples from the song without permission.
“I’m happy to have had success with Soul Makossa, but that’s not all that I am. I have so much more to offer,” Dibango said.
This year marks 60 years of Dibango performing music. In 2016, the All Africa Music Awards (AFRIMA) in Nigeria had a host of young superstars from the continent pay tribute to three African music legends: King Sunny Ade, Papa Wemba and none other than Manu Dibango. The event was also historic in that Dibango was granted The Legendary Award, which, he revealed, was the first time he had received any kind of music award in Africa, despite receiving many global awards in the course of his career.
There are still collaborations that Dibango dreams of doing, but he says they will happen naturally. “As a musician you should be curious in essence. You should free yourself to music, so that, if something comes out, you can express yourself in that new type of music. I’m not an African musician, but I’m from Africa. I don’t play music because I am from Africa, but because I am a musician. The distinction is important.”