The Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, who turned Eighty-Five in December 2018, was an essential figure in breaking down barriers to African music, particularly thanks to the international success of "Soul Makossa," in 1972. Here, he reveals his journey, moving between jazz, rumba, funk and reggae, crossing paths with Sidney Bechet, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Bob Marley and Mohamed Ali along the way, as well as General de Gaulle, Emperor Bokassa and notions of Pan-Africanism. For this long-form interview, we begin at the beginning: at the foot of Mount Cameroon, 1933.
Can you tell us about your childhood with Protestant parents in Douala, in the 1930s?
Yes, protestants of two different ethnicities. Ethnic groups are very important to us. Even now, the problems are still ethnicity-based. It’s true all over the world, but even more so in Africa.
What are your parents’ ethnic groups?
One is Douala, the other Yabassi, and forty kilometers separate the two groups. At home, forty kilometers is a whole world [laughs]. There are, perhaps, ethnic groups every ten or twenty kilometers or so, and each one speaks in its own dialect. It’s terrible, the mosaic that we have in Africa in general, and especially in Central Africa. But religion has brought them together.
Were inter-ethnic marriages seen badly at the time?
It depends on the ethnic group. Between certain groups it was very difficult and it is the same even now.
But between the Douala and Yabassi, how was it?
My father traveled forty kilometers by canoe on the river. The first village he stopped in was my mother’s. Some continue, others stop. He stopped [laughs]. Then suddenly, I arrived. I arrived in the same year that Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. My father was a civil servant in the public sector and my mother was a seamstress.
Did they listen to music?
At the temple, a lot – the choir, exactly as in the United States. Protestants, Baptists … we all have the same songs. Ours in Douala and theirs in English, they have the same melodies. When you come from there and then you listen to jazz, it’s familiar to you for religious reasons. Not for family or customary reasons, but because it’s essentially about Western harmonies in the manner of Bach or Handel. We play them in Africa, in our language, and we have the impression that they belong to us, because we learn them in Douala. Then, when you go to France at age 15 and you hear jazz on the radio, in a different language, it seems both familiar and distant. It’s a funny thing. Everything Armstrong sang was familiar to me, especially gospel, while I was Cameroonian in a French village.
In the temple in Douala, did you have a harmonium?
Yes. My father’s big brother played the harmonium during German occupation (my father was born in 1908). The Germans went home after the First World War.
Was it the Germans who brought a harmonium?
In the churches, yes. We weren’t colonized as such, but under German mandate. The French came too in 1918. My father was ten when they arrived. But I was born in a corner of the country where you could hear German, where you were insulted and roasted in German! [laughs] Cameroon isn’t like other countries that have been colonized. But there was a harsher civil war there than in the colonized countries. That’s another problem. So my father was playing harmonium and my mother, on the other side, was singing in the choir she conducted from time to time. I was born in a very “Hallelujah” environment [laughs].
Did you contact with music come from the church? Were radios run by the military?
When I was born, there weren’t too many radios. Actually, a cousin of my father mounted the first radio in Cameroon – he was a technician.
Did you have music on this radio?
Yes, well … it was very militaristic at first.
You said that the only song you learned at school was “La Marseillaise” …
We learned the French repertoire at school. Throughout the “French Empire,” the teachers devised the same studies and we all had the same educational book called Mamadou Et Bineta. I knew the Senegalese for what I had read in this book, and they knew about us for the same reasons.
So your childhood was studious: the school, the temple …
Yes, a lot of school.
You were a serious kid?
Maybe not [laughs]. I was very turbulent. As the only son on my mother’s side, I had a good childhood. I was well brought up. The hard way, like any good Protestant.
What does that mean? Corporal punishment?
Yes, it was very rigorous. When your father came home at 6 pm, you must be at home. And when your Catholic friends played, you couldn’t play with them.
Did you have any contact with traditional music at that time?
Yes, it was common! My dad’s younger brother played the guitar. He played traditional music and my father didn’t like it.
Because it was the devil’s music. Protestant education is terrible. My father did not get along with his brother because he did not play sacred music. They were believers, these people … The little brother did not care. He was in town, he played traditional music. Me: I had both. The customs and ceremonies were traditional but, on Sunday, it was all about the church.
Did you already have an interest in music or was it just part of your daily life?
One is born a musician. Some can become one, but I think that generally, a musician is born. I always liked music, more than football, more than children’s games … When I listened to music, I knew it was my thing! The career, the job … that’s something else. I was a musician at heart and that’s what interested me. So, at the church, the best moment for me was when the master climbed up to the harmonium, put on his glasses and set the score. For someone like me who loved music, that sound was really something.
Did you ever play the harmonium? Were you allowed to?
Oh no, we weren’t. There was one at my uncle’s house, but we weren’t allowed to touch that either – so we touched it [laughs]. What is certain is that music interested me. I saw people expressing their art on different instruments, guitars sometimes … At school, our teachers played the violin instead. There were string quartets at home. The Germans had left that kind of stuff behind …
Did you play the violin at school?
Oh no, I didn’t play. But our school masters accompanied the choir with violins, I was in love with that, of course. So much so that when I came to France I wanted to play the violin. But I was already 15 years old, it was too late.
At 15, your parents put you on a boat, the Hoggar, on route to Marseille. Was it so that you could pass your Bac (high school diploma) in France?
Yes, I did all my studies in France.
Because after the war, there were schemes to send Africans here – we were colonized, we were French, in fact. But we were not yet immigrants. Provided our parents had the means to pay for the trip, of course!
So, a certain Mr. Chevallier welcomes you to Marseille and takes you into his home in La Sarthe?
Yes, Mr. Chevallier, a teacher. I found myself alone in his village, Saint-Calais. And I was bored.
It must have been weird to go from Douala to Saint-Calais!
Of course, it was another world! But I was never alone in this instance. All the African children who had been sent to France had the same feeling as me. And we never went home: there were no planes and Marseille-Douala, by boat, took twenty-one days. But, we had holiday camps. That’s where we got to know each other, we Africans. The idea of the Francophonie, the very idea of a whole Africa, was born like that – in places like France much more than on the continent. In Africa, you are Cameroonian, you are Senegalese … You don’t know each other, you don’t see yourself. But here, you do.
You gave Mr. Chevallier three kilos of coffee on arrival. Why?
When we came from Africa, we brought a gift. And since coffee was scarce in the area, bringing in three kilos of coffee was a luxury. I was in boarding school and at the weekend I saw my host family.
Were there records? Music?
No, no. It was deep France! We had a radio in the living room but, nevertheless, I was not allowed to touch it. So it was Tino Rossi, Edith Piaf … people like that.
Any Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie on the radio?
Dizzy Gillespie, no. Armstrong, yes. He sang “It’s so good” (C’est si bon) …
And Sidney Bechet, he was on the radio?
Bechet came after. He became an idol; finishing his career in Paris … he filled the Olympia. The first time anyone smashed the Olympia, it was him, before Gilbert Bécaud.
You studied in France, in Chartres and Reims. How was it?
The main immigrants of the time were the Portuguese, the Italians or the Poles like [footballer] Raymond Kopa … While we Africans were citizens of the French Union. So we had no problem moving, we went everywhere. We must not forget, either, that we didn’t take anyone’s place. We had come to study and then to return afterwards.
How did you first encounter jazz?
On the radio and at high school where some classmates loved it. It was familiar to me, but not perfectly familiar, thanks to church and gospel; the blues came later. The blacks that we saw there were either boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson – or jazzmen. We didn’t yet see African musicians, except perhaps in some dance performances at the Chaillot theater. And there was also the Bal Nègre [cabaret] with West Indian music. But there wasn’t any African music at all, since there were no African workers, and no artists. Only us with our limited folk memories, nothing at all. So, we ended up going down to the cellars in Paris, where we could see the Armstrongs and the Count Basies with whom we identified. They were the only ones and they were at the top.
You were eighteen in 1951 when you met Francis Bebey, a fellow Cameroonian and a future great.
Yes, in a summer camp.
Did you start paying with him? We were in the camp and he played the guitar well. So, everyone who loved music was around him. Francis taught me a lot, including the twelve measures of the blues. He was ahead of us. Duke Ellington’s back catalogue was already familiar to him. He introduced me to all that. It really was my first contact with harmony in jazz. And having Duke Ellington as a model, that wasn’t so bad, especially at the time [laughs].
And your instrument wasn’t the saxophone at this point, right?
No, it was the mandolin first, because it was cheaper and you could lug it around easily in the camp. And then, the piano. The saxophone came by accident. Was it predestined? I don’t know. Of course, I didn’t have money to buy one. The saxophone came to me, essentially, much more than I went to get it.
A friend in the camp lent you one. Did you ever give it back?
That’s it. He became a great gentleman, who has since died: Moybe Ndedi. I saw him twice in my life and I never gave him his sax back. It was in bad shape. I really wanted to get rid of it and get a better one.
What fascinated you so much about the saxophone?
Simply: it’s sexy. I preferred it to the clarinet. Even if I had never played it, I would have liked it anyway.
The first record you bought was Duke Ellington’s Morning Glory, right?
Yes that’s it. It was the only record in the store [laughs].
Where was it?
At Château-Thierry. There was a record store and all my friends had little turntables – Teppaz. In the band, my friends loved jazz. They were going to buy Sidney Bechet … I, too, wanted to buy a jazz record to be just like the others. But when I arrived at the store, there was only one left: a 78 Morning Glory. I had never heard of it. Today, I consciously play this music with a symphony orchestra, so that it all comes full circle.
You mentioned Sidney Bechet several times. What role did he play?
We went to Saint-Germain-des-Pres where Bechet was playing with Claude Luter, in a club whose name now escapes me.
La Vieux Colombier
Voila! There was a theater upstairs and a cellar for jazz. In summer, Bechet also went to Juan-les-Pins. He truly was a huge star, and the French loved his sound – very lyrical, with a unique rubato. If there is a popular jazzman in France, it’s still Bechet. Much more than others. The others didn’t live here, but he did … At the Maurice-Chevalier theater, on Sundays, there was a public broadcast of Radio Luxembourg called Jazz Variétés. We lived in Château-Thierry, so my friends and I hitchhiked to listen to the orchestras that played there, artists like Don Byas, all the guys who went to Paris … There were no pictures, meagre small magazines, but there was this Sunday broadcast on Radio Luxembourg.
Was it free and public?
Yes, we queued every Sunday … It was from 11h to 12h and we were always there. Then the Algerian war started and many of my French friends died there. Suddenly, we came out of childhood to enter the adult world. It was also the the winter of 1954. In France it was Abbé Pierre and misery.
Do you remember the winter of 1954?
Yes, we were in Reims. I remember the declaration of Abbé Pierre, with his cloak. There was a TV in the bistro that we went to. It was here that we saw the misery. When you emerge from childhood, you don’t live in the outside world, you don’t know what politics is. Our eyes were waking up at the same time we were sending people to war in Algeria. Then, there was a crescendo.
Sidney Bechet has been with you all your life. You’ve dedicated an album to him …
Yes, Bechet but also Armstrong, the most popular two in France. There was also Duke Ellington and Count Basie, but they didn’t live here. They came, gave their concerts, and then left. Of course, the French also loved the music of New Orleans …
Me, I like all music.
Your parents sent you to France to study and you became a musician …
Yes, there is always a lame duck in the family [laughs].
What did they think? They sacrificed themselves for me and what was I doing? Being a musician. The very profession didn’t exist in Africa at that time. My father was a civil servant, he hoped at least that I should be a civil servant, with a regulated life. While I spent my nights in the clubs … For them, clubs were the smoke, the bad crowds, the girls, the marginality. I was an ‘entertainer.’ I had missed my life. I was the shame of the family.
Watch Manu Dibango – Live at Jazzopen 1995 on Qwest TV
At that point?
Oh yes, I was the renegade. Besides, I had married a white girl. When you leave the country, you swear in ceremonies not to bring back a stranger. It’s not just a French thing, huh! [Laughs]
And so, your parents cut you off?
Obviously! So, I went to Brussels to make a living with music.
Playing the balls …
I played in clubs, in cabarets, all that … The life of a normal musician, pretty much.
When did “Emmanuel” become “Manu” – when did the nickname replace the first name?
In 1957. I don’t know what the circumstances were, by the way. There was a catalog called Manufrance, which everyone had in Africa, where we bought all our stuff: machines, bicycles, rifles … all that. And the idea came from there: Manu-France.
What role did you play in the orchestras?
A variety. The music everyone was playing. I hadn’t yet conceived of the idea to make my own music.
You mean it wasn’t jazz?
Not especially. But there were jazz sequences. When you play in a cabaret, you have the tango, the bolero, the paso doble, the French ‘chanson,’ and thereby a jazz sequence. There were booklets, books called ‘combos,’ which the Americans gave us that listed all the standards that we had to play.
Did you have to know how to do everything?
Yes, when you are a musician, you accompany ballets, you accompany singers … that’s how it works. And then, little by little, you become a conductor, if you have to become one.
And you have become one.
Yes, that’s where I saw Quincy Jones for the first time.
For what occasion?
In fact no, I had seen him before, in Paris. He was third trumpet for Lionel Hampton, in this famous section with Art Farmer, Clifford Brown … We knew these musicians through Jazz Play, Jazz Hot … Nicole, Eddy Barclay’s wife, had recruited Quincy Jones to work with label, and he moved to Paris, where he acquired much more European culture than the others. That’s what allowed him to make film music, when it was very difficult for a black man in the United States to do so at that time. Then I saw him again in a Brussels theater where he was playing with a big band for the musical Free and Easy.
Brussels marked a big turning point in your life.
I met a lot of Belgian musicians.
Above all you met Coco!
Yes, that’s where I met my wife. It was the Black Angels venue at the top of the city. On stage you had Jacques Pelzer, Sadi Lallemand, Toots Thielemans … There is a film about Toots Thielemans in which I appear with my wife. It was in 1959 or 1960. It was pure chance. We had gone to see him in concert, and at the intermission we got up just as the camera turned. I was young, I had hair … All this is a long way of saying that I was deeply fond of jazz. I was going to see Art Blakey, I even played with him.
About the meeting with Coco, was it complicated to be in an interracial couple?
We met in 1957 and there were no problems. The problems started with the wars, independence in the Congo, for example. Even in France, it was going well – the country with the most mixed marriages is still France.
You mentioned Black Angels. Were you the leader of their house orchestra?
Yes, Fonesca’s club, his father was from Casamance and his mother was from Cape Verde.
So, it was 1960, and there were many meetings in Brussels, which would decide the future of the Belgian Congo …
My destiny was decided there.
In the margins of the negotiations, the future Congolese leaders – Patrice Lumumba, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, Albert Kalongi, Mobutu Sese Seko when he was still a journalist, who spent their evenings at Black Angels …
Mobutu was already working for C.I.A. but we did not know it yet. And as always with the Congolese, political affairs were settled in bars [laughs].
Were you aware of being at the heart of the story?
I could not know. In Brussels, black students came from all over the world: black Americans for known reasons, others from Haiti, from the French or Dutch colonies, and so on. I was just living in the middle of this diaspora and doing my job.
The Grande Kalle said that you met the Congolese conductor Joseph Kabasele, at Black Angels … What was he doing there?
He had come with Lumumba because Congolese politicians often move with the orchestras they love – this was the case for Tabu Ley Rochereau and Franco in particular. Kabasele was a star at the time. You have to realize that in 1960, in the Congo, he had a huge villa and rolled in Cadillac. A professional orchestra didn’t exist anywhere else in Africa. To be a musician was not a profession, except in the Congo.
Kabasele was the leader of the African Jazz, whose saxophonist fell ill …
That’s it. Things often happen through replacements. In this instance, the guy did not come – a guy from Tanzania, by the way. He was the only non-Congolese who was in the orchestra … Isaac.
So, African Jazz recruited you?
I was recruited to participate in sessions that have since become historic because it was the first time that Africans were able to record in Europe with the techniques of the moment. In Africa, everything was still happening via the radio because there weren’t really any studios. Basically, everything we recorded sounded terrible. For several reasons. The Congolese numbered about 15 million and they all spoke the same language – quite the economic force. With us, with our dialects, you could be popular in Douala and not popular in Yaoundé. The Belgians did a lot of shit in the Congo but they also did something awesome: founded a very powerful radio station, which broadcast until 3AM. All of Central Africa was plugged into it. Congolese music became popular everywhere and playing with Congolese musicians gave you notoriety throughout Africa. That’s what happened to me.
Kabasélé recorded “Independance Cha Cha” in Brussels. Were you already with him?
Yes, but I didn’t play on it. That piece was so powerful, and it happened at the right time, remaining the hymn of African independence until today. It also happens that it was very well put together, with the Nico’s guitar … Kabasele returned to the Congo where his music was a huge success, of course. When he came to do the second series of recordings, I played on a lot of songs, on several instruments including piano – piano didn’t exist in Congolese music of the time. The success was even bigger. So much so that Kabasele asked me to go home, to the Congo – it was in August 1961. I had to stay one month, during the cabaret holidays, and I ended up staying there for two years. This is where I really got into the music that Africans ate and danced to. And that you didn’t yet know, paradoxically … No, and it was good to play with the musicians who made people dance at home. When I made a reggae record, I went to Jamaica. You can still do reggae in Paris, but when you do it in Kingston … it’s better!
Did the orchestras have a political function at the time of independence?
Absolutely. Lumumba was the artists’ favorite, because he was the first revolutionary and because he had taken an African band to Brussels at the point where the destiny of the Congo was being decided. To recruit an orchestra at the same time as discussing the destiny of a country is pretty special. They came home with instruments that didn’t exist in Africa, and they came back with me, Manu. The records were so successful, it was great. You don’t see that kind of thing twice. When I got there, they had never seen a black man playing the piano and making people dance at the same time … while being married to a blonde [laughs]. Everyone wanted to buy my wife [laughs]. And I was not a UN official, but a musician. So people began to build mysteries around me.
You land then in Leopoldville, which had not yet been renamed Kinshasa.
Yes it was still Leopoldville. And at that point, I was bored because I had been and done dance music. When you come from Duke Ellington and Count Basie and you are only able to play dance music, it all feels ephemeral, it fucks with you. You want to move on. So, I opened a club. I was lucky enough to find a banker I knew in Brussels who put his huge villa at my disposal, including a grand piano. A surreal thing considering when it happened! I opened this show called Tam Tam, and all the expats came, including a lot of pilots who bombed Katanga by day and came to the club by night.
What was music like at Tam Tam?
There was more of a jazzy atmosphere than actual jazz – jazz of a certain level. It was a music that Westerners could consume more easily than rumba. I had trained my musicians for this exact purpose. In 1962, I was able to record my first records in the Congo …
“Twist to Leo”?
Was the twist important at the time?
Yes, and I was the only black musician engaging in it. African musicians normally did the rumba. I thought: why not twist … in Leopoldville. And it worked terrific! I was like a journalist, I seized the air time.
The twist was brand new. Did you already have the will to breath life into modernity?
We were even ahead of the time. Of course, I am African, but my priority was not that. My priority is music.
You opened a second Tam Tam in Douala …
My father had convinced me to come home. But that didn’t sit well with me at all.
Because it was civil war?
Yes, civil war and curfew. I lived a way of the cross.
The Tam Tam in Douala wasn’t working, so you went back to France?
It didn’t work because it was too early. That wasn’t the priority, there was a war … Also, I’m not a businessman, it annoyed me in the end. So, I came back to France, and I came across the Dick Rivers and company. Another career, basically.
So then you played with Dick Rivers, Nino Ferrer … yéyés [French 60’s counter-culture].
Yes, I stayed with Nino for a long time. Four years anyway.
And you liked it, being a fan of Armstrong and Sidney Bechet?
Nino was a good musician.
Certainly, but the music had fairly simple structures.
It was better to make a living than going to do jazz in Saint-Germain! You can either play the solo of your life … or, hey … you have to be realistic at some point.
Did you enjoy it or was it just a job for you?
At first, it was a job. Especially with Dick. Nino, though, was a musician who loved jazz, who played well and used beautiful melodies.
And with Mike Brant, was it a work or pleasure?
Mike Brant … it was fun because he was a real singer. Variety is good and it allows you to make a living. In the United States, Wynton Marsalis earned money with jazz but his brother Branford had worked a lot for television. Without the festival pay cheques, it gets complicated. I still stayed two years in the United States, but had to understand that.
Continuing through history, we reach 1969. Saxy Party was your first album and you reinterpreted Nino Ferrer’s “I want to be black” …
It was done on purpose, of course, for those who understand layers of irony. I want to be black, too … but the Mississippi black! [laughs] I had the opportunity to make this album with good musicians. At the same time, for two and a half years, I participated in the TV show Pulsations, sponsored by Claude Nougaro. We had a big band and we took everyone in. In 1968, we were in our studio while the guys were throwing bricks outside [during an uprising]. I didn’t see many bricks but I recorded a lot.
Looking at the album cover, we see that you define certain compositions as “Afro-jerks.” Did you want to associate African music and American music?
Was it instinctive or was it conceptualized beforehand?
I have always heard music like that. It is not a question of distorting anything but I have always been the product of mixtures, from the beginning. The mixture is not what bothers me, as long as it doesn’t become collage.
What is the difference between a mixture and a collage?
It’s not about making jazz and sticking it onto an afro thing. It has to melt into it, becoming natural. That’s the difference.
When the album came out, you were 40 years old. And here you recorded a piece for the African Cup of Nations, in 1972 in Cameroon …
They had launched the offer and I won the right to do it. At the time, I made a record that pleased a lot of people in Cameroon – I was number 1. So I was given the money to do it, a 45. What mattered was the A side. I was paid for that, to write an anthem for the national football team. But we lost the match.
1-0 against the Congo. And the B-side on this record?
Yes, there was a piece on the B-side and I noticed that people liked it. It turns out that we were embroiled in the “Black is beautiful” moment, the return to the roots. Black Americans came to Paris to look for the African music that the record companies provided for them. Everyone knows the rest of the story. Was it by chance or was it predestined? Still, that’s how they saw Africa.
This B-side was “Soul Makossa.” Just as you mixed Africa and jerk via your “Afro-jerks,” this time you mixed American soul with Cameroonian music: makossa.
For me, it was natural to play like that. The particularity was also that I had the idea of doubling the bass. We used a double bass line and we doubled the drums too, because we could not record the counter-time I wanted. On top of that, the drummer was left-handed and it created a shift – there were no drum machines back then. These were all the elements that made up this magical rhythm.
Legend has it that DJ David Mancuso bought “Soul Makossa” from a record store in New York, before playing it in his club, the Loft, and that the song became a hit thanks to that … Does that ring true?
No! An American radio station broadcast the record. I don’t know how it got there and it became a success. It triggered a fight between Motown and Atlantic who both wanted to release the album. The choice finally went for Atlantic, who already had Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin in their catalog – much closer to my sensibilities than Motown’s music, which was much more sophisticated.
The album climbed to 35th place on the Billboard chart and you made a dash for the United States, a trip that included ten days at the Apollo in Harlem. How was it?
Magical. You had the Temptations, Edwin Starr … They all wanted to see an African band playing, because it was a first one at the Apollo. The first two days, the Temptations had a bit of a sulk. They were the stars of the moment, with “Papa Was A Rollin ‘Stone,” but people didn’t come for them … They really wanted to see the African band [laughs]. The spectators arrived with maracas, tambourines, they made the rhythm in the room … From the first measurements of “Soul Makossa,” it made them crazy. It really hit my hard. There you go!
It changed your life
Clearly! But it’s not without bumps in the road. It’s all so heavy. You have to learn how to handle it. When you arrive, nothing feels normal, it’s jaw-dropping.
At the end of 1982, you received a greetings card from a friend who worked at the UN in New York. In her letter, she congratulated you for your collaboration with Michael Jackson … but you didn’t have a clue what she was talking about!
[laughs] That’s another story, which started ten years later. Another world … a world of lawyers.
“Soul Makossa” was used by Michael Jackson to compose “Wanna Be Startin ‘Somethin'” on the Thriller album. In a recent interview, Quincy Jones said Michael Jackson knew he didn’t have the rights to do sample it, but he didn’t care.
He was fooled by Jackson. I am not alone in that case. I always say: the bigger the artist, bigger the problems. At the same time, I have to thank him because he extended the song’s life cycle.
Especially since you sued Michael Jackson and you won.
Let’s say I didn’t lose. There was an arrangement.
You won 2 million francs?
I won a lot.
Not 2 million francs?
No … I’m not going to tell you [laughs]. Let’s just say that it was another step in the career of an artist who experiences their piece becoming a standard. There are thousands of standards, but fewer that last more than forty years … Still, young people were engaging with the song. Michael Jackson gave it a new vitality. If someone else would have picked it up, maybe it wouldn’t have had the same impact. And also, he had Quincy’s job to back him up …
Rihanna also picked up “Soul Makossa,” by sampling “Wanna Be Startin ‘Somethin'” on “Don’t Stop The Music.” Was that also settled amicably?
There was an arrangement [laughs].
How did you find yourself managing the State Television Orchestra of the Ivory Coast in the mid-70s? Firstly, all my best childhood friends – at school, in high school – were Ivorians. I knew Houphouët-Boigny [president of Ivory Coast 1960 to 1993] when he was still a minister in France. In line with his philosophy, he wanted to be surrounded by the best Africans, in all fields. So, at the time of Ivory Coast’s independence in August 1960, he asked me to come – I lived in the United States – to play two concerts. Ivorians have been trying to set up an orchestra for national radio and they called on me, a Cameroonian, something unimaginable today, just as you would never see an Ivorian running things in Cameroon. Houphouët was a proponent of idea of pan-Africanism. Besides, I was replacing a very good Malian musician, Boncana Maïga. On my part, I applied the Houphouët’s ideas and I recruited the best Africans: Ivorians of course but also Ghanaians, Senegalese, Nigerians …
You wanted to create pan-African music in tandem with its political ambitions?
Ideally, yes. In any case, African artists such as Salif Keita or Mory Kanté had toured the continent before traveling to France. When they arrived at my house, my orchestra had to be able to accompany them.
“Paris was at the forefront of African music, thanks to people like Jean-François Bizot and Rémy Kolpa Kopoul. It was an interesting time.”
Pan-Africanism also guided another episode in your career, Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s imperial coronation in the Central African Republic in 1977. What were you doing there?
After de Gaulle, Houphouët was Bokassa’s second spiritual father. Seeking an orchestra to animate his coronation, he sought advice from Houphouët who sent him the state television one. That’s how I ended up in there.
Was it as crazy as we imagine? We have the image of Bokassa dressed like Napoleon I, the parade with a carriage drawn by horses that died along the way … all the while, you played for the banquet’s 10,000 guests.
Including many French politicians. Careful, the air was full of diamonds! The rain was falling like it sometimes can in Africa – a storm like in the tropics. The coach was parked in front of the palace and, since no one closed the windows, it was full of water. There had never normally been a ‘carriage’ culture. I already knew Bokassa. When I had my nightclub in Douala, he would take a military plane, have some fun at ours and leave at around 5am. He was still only a general at that point.
What instructions did you have? What kinds of pieces had to be played?
Dance music – it was a ball. We had to play a slow rumba at the beginning. The capital Bangui is close to the Congo. So, the rumba was necessary.
Was everyone happy with the orchestra’s job?
They didn’t care … [laughs]. It could have been anyone playing. They weren’t there to dance. They were waiting for the diamonds.
Is it still a good memory?
It’s funny, I participated in something … A black man who thought he was Napoleon, who forced the hand of the Pope and the French … Here’s an anecdote anyway: in Yaoundé where I was before the coronation, the international airport was closed in the afternoon. However, the plane carrying the Ivorian ministers and the orchestra was meant to pick me up at around 15:30. So – it just landed anyway, without anyone expecting it to. Things got a bit tense and we came close to a serious diplomatic incident with the Cameroonian presidency. I was holding my sax and a small bag on the tarmac. At this time I was playing with the Police Orchestra in Cameroon. The boss of the police force was a friend, so I found myself directing this group of very organized musicians. They could read scores and I was charged with providing a repertoire and writing arrangements. I took the chance to discover the rhythms of Cameroon with all the special features like muffled guitars, where we would slip a fabric under the strings to make balafon-like sounds.
You finished the 1970s in Jamaica. How did that project get started?
My producer was Chris Blackwell, the owner of Island Records, the same as Bob Marley. He often came to Paris which was at the forefront of African music, thanks to people like Jean-François Bizot and Rémy Kolpa Kopoul. It was an interesting time. Previously, we only really heard American, Brazilian and Cuban music. Everything coming from Africa was folk until “Soul Makossa,” which opened things up. There was a certain dynamic in Paris. People, having had to spin around to American music for so long, were looking elsewhere. We got there at that time.
So Chris Blackwell asked you to make a reggae album in Kingston?
It was a bit like that. The idea was to go alone and play with Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and the whole gang. Gainsbourg had returned to France and had just recorded his reggae albums in the same studio. I played with the same musicians as him.
With Sly and Robbie on the rhythms…
They had the know-how … I also had Brecker Brothers on brass … It’s a good album, eh! In fact, I recorded two [Gone Clear released in 1979 and Ambassador in 1981].
And Gwen Guthrie and Jocelyn Brown on backing vocals … singers who would make huge hits …
That’s it. Unknown back then, huh! [laughs] When you listen to the record, you hear that it really, really sings … There is a special element there. I was happy to do that. I stayed a month, anyway, in Jamaica. It was a very good time. The mix was in London.
Did you meet Bob Marley regularly in Kingston?
Yes, I went to see him, despite the religious crooks who were circling around him. Jamaicans hate Africans, they don’t see themselves as Africans. For them, the Emperor Haile Selassie is a God whereas, for us, he is an assassin. It’s like how the god and the devil are closely connected [laughs].
You had previous experience with the Fania All Stars …
It was a strange time. When I was in the United States with “Soul Makossa,” they came to see me at the Apollo, while they self-defined as the Spanish Harlem. The boss of the Fania label, Jerry Masucci, came to see me and I went on tour for two years, in 1974-1975. Two seasons with Johnny Pacheco, Celia Cruz, Cheo Feliciano, Hector Lavoe … the all stars! It was enjoyable because I travelled all over Latin America with them, and we even met at the Zaire 74 festival that preceded the fight of the century in Kinshasa [the boxing match between Mohamed Ali and George Foreman in 1974]. We were in the same hotel as Mohamed Ali, who had already come to see me play at the Apollo.
Did you have the opportunity to chat with him?
Yes, in Lagos and Kinshasa. He was promoting his fight and we were in the same hotel. We talked about everything and nothing. He was in Africa for the first time.
Did he feel that it was important for him to be there?
Not only for him, for Foreman too, and for all the musicians in Zaire who, when they got off the plane, kissed the African soil. It was moving to travel with them. We’d boarded an Air Zaire plane that had picked us up in New York. The Americans were so happy to see African pilots on an African plane! They discovered that Africans don’t necessarily live among elephants and monkeys.
Can you understand why they found it moving to set foot in Africa?
Yes. They called it the ‘return of the boat’. These were intense moments. There was atavism, though, the same love of music and rhythm, even though environments changed a lot.
Zaire Festival 74 was really something, with people like James Brown, B.B. King and Bill Withers … Watching the film is amazing. It feels like the artists gave their all.
It’s true, they gave everything. They also discovered African artists – Tabu Ley Rochereau, Franco, Miriam Makeba … who were on the same stage. I was lucky to see that.
In the mid-1970s, you were essentially the hinge between …
… Europe, Africa and the United States. …
… and therefore between Africa and salsa, Africa and funk, Africa and reggae …
Yes that’s right. It was intense. The 1970s were a wicked time, in the good sense of the word.
You were often on the move. But did Paris remain your base?
I had my apartment. Still in the 94th, in Joinville. It was plan B, just in case.
In case, what?
[Laughs]. I didn’t live in Africa for long. Four years in the Ivory Coast, a year and a half for sporadic trips to Cameroon …
Is it a regret?
No, an observation. As people, we have always had a hybridized make up. Of my generation, there are not many. We have known colonization, we have known “independence” and I insist on the inverted commas.
Why say “independence” with inverted commas?
What is independence? These are just words. I don’t do politics. But we are not independent, of course, nothing’s changed. Slavery still exists. We are not fooled.
You’ve never wanted to play politics?
No … it doesn’t interest me. I’m already busy with music, I’m lucky.
People did politics AND music, Fela to name just one.
Yes, but for what it brought him … were the people really with him? It’s not the people who got thrown in a cell … politics is all well and good, but when you say “the people are with me,” it’s not necessarily true. I assume that every river harbors a crocodile. I do not accept that kind of suffering. For me, the notion of the “people” doesn’t exist
Let’s move on in your career. To the 1985 album Electric Africa. It included great people: Bill Laswell, Herbie Hancock …
Yes … You have to be in the right place at the right time. Jean Karakos – he’s dead now – was the man who produced the record on his label Celluloid. He opened the doors. It was very interesting to work with Bill Laswell who was always ready to try out experiments. Also, I had long believed that Laswell was black. When I arrived at the studio one afternoon, I was introduced to everyone and … he wasn’t black. I asked, “Where is Laswell? He was in front of me [laughs]. Conversely, when I went to record strings in a New York studio for Atlantic, all the musicians of the orchestra were black … And all the members of the rhythm were white … At Atlantic! [Laughs]. The ideas we come up with, when we’re not there to actually see for ourselves … When you listen to these New York recordings, the swing is all wrong, the strings are terrible!
On the keyboards, you had Herbie Hancock, Bernie Worrell, Wally Badarou …
I worked for a long time with Badarou in the 1970s and 1980s. He always came from the Bahamas where he worked in Blackwell’s studio [at Compass Point All Stars, Nassau]. He was a very good musician. It’s a pity he doesn’t record anymore.
Electric Africa is reminiscent of Hancock’s “Rockit” …
Yes. I played with Hancock afterwards. We did three albums together. He came to Paris especially for Electric Africa and we participated in La 25e Heure, a television show. We had played “Round About Midnight” with Michel Portal, both of us. From time to time, I played jazz. I am not a jazz musician but I am a jazz lover.
Would you have liked to play more?
I played it but hey, it doesn’t bring in the money … And then I had something more … I had a whole continent behind me. There is a lot to tap into there. It’s true that jazz is an opening to other horizons. But there are plenty of opportunities in Africa, too. So, I couldn’t be a jazz musician, I didn’t want to, but I am a very good amateur nevertheless.
What are your jazz preferences?
I’m attracted to several eras. The here and now doesn’t interest me because they have cut the legs off it. It has become too Western. It is in the head. The last one that interested me just died: Roy Hargrove. He was really swinging … That’s a guy I would get out to go and see. I do not go to concerts because … it’s a personal thing … the music that is being developed just doesn’t interest me. What I’m still interested in is Maceo Parker, that kind of groove [laughs].
It’s your generation.
Yes, but I like it. We played together, here or in Africa, in Angola or in South Africa. Many black Americans go to play in Africa because there are so many festivals, more than you’d think. Marcus Miller is there all the time.
What is the story for the album Wakafrica? The cast includes … Salif Keita, Ray Lema, Youssou N’Dour, Gabriel Peter, Geoffrey Oryema, King Sunny Ade, Angélique Kidjo, Papa Wemba, Touré Kunda, Bonga …
Yves Bigot, who runs TV5 Monde today, is a friend of mine. At one point, he was the boss of Fnac Music Production and, one thing led to another, before the idea came to us to make a kind of trip across Africa, musically speaking, bringing all these artists together. I’m happy to have made that gamble. In the meantime, Youssou N’Dour had become a minister, Angélique Kidjo had acquired the dimension that she still has … I found them all the right moment. It’s a record I like a lot. The idea was that everyone would play with the styles and quirks of others, to express the richness of a certain Africa.
The idea was to produce through pan-Africanism?
Yes, through an African all-stars. But we had already done Tam-Tam for Ethiopia [a charity record to fight the famine in Ethiopia] which included many people.
Were you the driving force behind this idea?
Yes. Always in the right place at the right time! Wakafrica is also a timeless album. Youssou, Salif, Angélique and Bonga are still singing as well. We also had Ray Phiri, a South African, I loved this guy – he’s dead now. I had discovered him thanks to Paul Simon. Moreover Paul Simon had stole my guitarist, Vincent Nguini. We had a tour in the United States and then … well. But all the better for him. For an African musician, joining Paul Simon’s band and staying there for so long was very important.
Was Wakafrica difficult to set up or was it achieved quite naturally?
It’s never natural … There are people we would have liked to have included but they were too busy. The others came from different backgrounds, the recordings didn’t suit everyone. It wasn’t easy. Hence the importance of bringing everyone together on the same disk.
Let’s stay on the idea of Pan-Africanism. You also accompanied the rise of a new African cinema by composing music for the Ivorian Henri Duparc’s film L’herbe Sauvage, Ceddo by Hamidou Kane and La Colère des Dieux by Burkinabé Idrissa Ouedraogo …
But also L’aventure Ambiguë by Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Le Prix De La Liberté by Jean-Pierre Dikongué Pipa … when we composed for cinema, we put ourselves at the service of the ideas of a director, the actors, the dialogue and the technicians. The best movie music, except in cases like Shaft or Un Homme Et Une Femme, is when you hear it without listening to it. It should be there without being omnipresent by hinting at shades of color.
Is it an exercise that you like?
It leads to discovery! With Ousmane Sembène I had a lot of trouble, because I didn’t have an in-depth knowledge of the music of West Africa. I had to pay attention to the kind of Senegalese traditional music that we don’t always listen to.
Why did he approach you and not a Senegalese?
It’s a good question. But that’s how I see Africa. Just because you are Cameroonian doesn’t mean you necessarily need to compose for Cameroonian film. People tell us that if a film takes place in Kenya, the music should also be made in Kenya. But the films we just talked about conceive of the Africa I dream about. That’s pan-Africanism.
Are you a film buff?
Yes. Less now because there are too many special effects, so I dropped out. I don’t go to the movies anymore. I am a cinephile of Audiard’s stuff. Current movies do not generally connect with me, like much of current music.
Your friend Isaac de Bankole plays a part in Black Panther. Did you see the movie?
This, yes! This film was an event – a revolution as when Shaft came out and we saw a black policeman in Harlem. Black Panther was the same. Black actors in the cinema have too often been reduced to sub-roles.
During all this time, you’ve remained faithful to your childhood village, Saint-Calais. You even set up a festival in the 1990s. Was that important?
Yes, I wanted to complete the loop. I still have friends there that I went to school with. With time, there are less and less but there are some I shared a dormitory with. When you’re 15 years old and you settle in a particular place, the friends you make are significant.
What do you think of new African music? The continent seems to be developing a powerful economy around it.
All majors labels are connected to Africa. Even Bolloré has a dozen channels and is opening Olympia on the continent. Everyone thinks it’s the new Eldorado. For them, maybe. But is it the new Eldorado for Africans? I’m not so sure. I have the impression that business is still not carried out by African hands.
In Nigeria and South Africa, there are scenes that are run locally.
There are 190 million people in Nigeria. It’s not a small affair. These two countries are the giants of the continent. You can find scenes like that, but rarely, like in French-speaking countries, with top-level equipment and, despite everything that happens around them, they are picked up by a large limousine from the airport. That’s Africa. Its not shown. We are only shown through the poor of Soweto, where people are hungry.
Are you interested by any current music? The coupé-décalé [a music style based on the zouglou rhythm], afro-rap, afro-house … ?
I love Nigerian music. The father of the star of the moment – Yemi Alade – was a friend, a wicked jazzman. We played together for a long time. In Lagos, rhythms are based on the highlife. I love it! Much more than coupé-décalé. I like things that come from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa … There are sacred musicians there, with a background in jazz, and a great diversity of rhythms. Ghana has a culture … They already had big bands by the 1950s! They had nothing to envy in the United States.
You broadcasted a show every Sunday on Africa radio n°1. Did it force you to follow everything that came out?
I got all the records; I didn’t even know where to put them. There were so many, they tumbled everywhere! Especially since Africans continued releasing records while Westerners opted for the download. Africans were attached to the aesthetic comfort of the object.
Are you a record collector?
Yes, but old records. I go second-hand. But there are fewer record stores now and it’s a disaster for people like us.
Where do you go?
In the summer, when people unpack old things in the streets, they always have records. In the Latin Quarter, there are still two good music stores. Mostly jazz, with people who know the records. I always go alone, because I’m afraid to annoy the person with me. I am able to look at an album sleeve for an hour.
Is it primarily jazz that you look for?
Yes, and Latin music. But a particular kind of jazz, say until the 1970s. I’m looking for things that people don’t usually know, sometimes 45s that I owned and then lost. In fact, I love going to record stores.
Only for vinyls?
Preferably, because the sound is so much better. And when I come across someone who is an enthusiast, they tell me stuff, we engage in a conversation … when I come out of there, I feel happy! But discoveries are scarce and fewer and fewer things excite me now. Someone really has to tell me, “Do you have the Cannonball from that period? ” “Who played on it?” “Ah, I didn’t know he had played with so-and-so … ” Yes, then I’m interested.
How many records do you have in your collection?
I’m not at the stage of knowing how many discs I have. I make compilations on CD with the music I want to listen to in the car, for example. Stuff from the Modern Jazz Quartet. My car is my studio and my personal disco.
Have you had a recent admiration for an artist?
No. The last record I loved getting was Roy Hargrove in a big band. I like well-written music so I’m interested in big bands. But there are fewer and fewer nowadays. Quincy Jones is one of the last to do it. Today, the composers were trained at Berkeley, they all spin at 2000 per hour. Try to look for a note in all that. They play thousands of notes, except the good ones [laughs]. It must be said that three quarters of these musicians have never been to a club. They never saw people dancing.
Is dancing the most formative aspect?
Yes, but even so … We mustn’t forget that the Duke and the others played clever music that people still loved to dance to. Now, and I really believe this, we have been rendered more immobile. That doesn’t interest me. So much for listening to contemporary music or something else. I don’t want jazz to piss me off. This is not my idea of jazz: everyone having serious faces.
So you don’t only want cerebral music. It should be physical too?
Yes, it misses the physical side. In Africa, everything has it. When I went to Kinshasa in the 1960s, I was a pure jazz lover and I had people listen to Thelonious Monk … They listened and said, “But how do we dance? [Laughs] All over Africa, it’s like that. If you venture into intellectualism, people fall asleep. It’s not part of our culture. The music must be “body and soul.” If you do not have the “body,” it doesn’t work …
You are celebrating your 85th birthday. Are birthdays important to you?
No, I seriously don’t care. After a certain point, you stop counting.
Have you ever run after something in your life?
We always run after things … The best things, in particular. But we can run all our lives, and still never catch up. I don’t even know if God has caught up with the blunders he has made. We can philosophize for a long time. Whatever genius you have, you can’t ever be in front of the music. When you understand it, it makes you a little more realistic and modest.
Are you nostalgic for any period of your life?
It depends what is called “nostalgia.” I can experience a nostalgic dynamic, but it’s not negative. With hindsight, you realize that there were years you connected to more than others. But the musician is always a sensor. We can discuss the notion of composition … do you compose, or do you just capture the idea when it arrives? I think we are receptors. It’s all about knowing when to halt information at the right time. Your know-how follows from that. How do you arrive at creation? There are times when you have the paper in front of you and nothing happens. And there are times when, in the throws of conflict, ideas come to you. That’s the meaning of life. How do you capture or magnify what you have in front of you? You do so, feeling good, but the next day you think: “Oh fuck, its shit” and you throw it in the trash.
Do you still compose?
Yes, often by using four measures, sometimes a little more. I have to answer questions, and it’s always exciting. It’s weird, this story. There are many things that I haven’t developed in my life. I have cabinets full of ideas with four measures that go no further and that I never listen to.
In your journey, are there things that you are particularly proud of?
Proud is not the word. Happy, yes. I remember the year that I did “Soul Makossa,” that is to say, in 1972 – I did so many different things. That year, everything I did worked. “Soul Makossa” has nothing to do with gospel I used to compose for my parents when talking about Jesus; nothing to do with the television album Africadélic; nothing to do with O Boso, an album where I played a lot of soprano, something I didn’t revisit. I never again experienced this abundance of positive ideas. The early 1970s was a transitional year for me, it meant I could do a lot, really.
When you think back to the boy from Douala who then made the whole world dance for decades, what does it do to you?
I am lucid about it. Even if I don’t know where I am going, I know where I came from and the dreams I have been able to realize. I’m not talking about career dreams per say, but dreams about life, a better life, a world of travel. I was practically born at the foot of Mount Cameroon, which measures a little more than 4,000 meters. Boy, I wondered what was behind the mountain that I saw everyday. I wanted to travel and to see the other side. But you don’t know if it will happen, because it happens when you don’t expect it. Your parents decide to send you to France, you become a privileged person. At the time, very few parents sent their kids to another family. I dreamed about these things but I never thought they would happen. When de Gaulle came to Cameroon in 1943, I was 9 years old. I was a scout and we had the first marches on the harbor. I haven’t forgotten. When General Leclerc and the Second Armored Division came, they were training on my parents’ street. I saw them and we played soldiers. But the whites lived in their world and we in ours. My father worked with them, and that’s the only connection that existed. One day, I saw white prisoners, they were tied up and it was a shock for me. I learned later that they were Vichy guys, that France was liberating herself and that the Second World War was ending … I remember the “volunteers” that were looked for during the war. In the cities, in the villages, in the neighborhoods, in the houses, in the cellars, they rounded up all the guys over 18 years old. I was 8 or 9 years old and at night I saw columns of guys going to war passing by me. When talking about my past, these are memories that come back to me.
Are you happy to have crossed over the 4000-meter mountain?
Yes, it was my dream to go to the other side. I crossed the mountain often and didn’t stay just behind. I went much further. I changed worlds, really. My boat trip from Douala to Marseille was an initiatory journey. And the rest followed from there.
Watch Manu Dibango – Live at Jazzopen 1995 on Qwest TV