The most widely known musician from the 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. 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.
Born Emmanuel Dibango on February 10, 1934, in Douala, Cameroon, Dibango first discovered his interest in music as a boy at home and in church. 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.
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. 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.
Dibango 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.