My best read of 2020 was Patrick Chabal’s “The Politics of Suffering and Smiling” in which he sketches a theory of African politics. Chabal argues that in all systems, the politician determines what is important for his people, and if he delivers what the people value or want, he will earn relevance and maintain his power.
The tragedy of African politics and society, in general, is that the public erects gift-giving and gift-receiving as the ultimate standard of value or moral behavior. Everything else is secondary or even trivial. After a failed gubernatorial bid, Yul Edochie lamented that “If you run for office and you don’t have money to share, even your village people will leave you and support a well-known kidnapper who is sharing money”.
When we have access to those politicians, we do not ask them about the laws they have voted or policies they have rolled out but we rather expect gifts of all sort and judge them by what they give or do not give. Well, since that is what we want, they will swindle money for projects, dash some to us and put the rest in his pockets and everyone is happy. If I may add, to take the cheekiness further, when we meet that public-sector or private-sector thieving cousin/brother/uncle of ours, we do not call them out for the wealth they cannot justify but will hail them for all their giving and generosity. Gift giving is the ultimate virtue that cleanses even the vilest person among us, right?
The silliness of our warped conception of value shows in the fact that we have held a major national dialogue to debate on why Samuel Eto’o did not give money for Mama Nguéa to pay her bills. Curiously, there were no similar debates on why Etoo’s football academy project never took off or who/what blocked the project. When we meet a successful writer/dancer/businessperson/singer, we are not interested in what we can gain from their experience. What seems to interest us is what they can give or have been giving. And if they do not give, then they are evil persons void of any virtue.
That is what I call the awesome art of fishing in swimming pools and cursing the pool for not giving you fish. No surprise that all these “money-miss-road” people whose only virtue is that they can buy us a beer do not need to introduce themselves anymore, whereas “Who is Manu Dibango?” is a valid question.
Who is Manu Dibango sef? To be fair, I would like to believe that such a question stems from our limited knowledge of our own culture, its icons, and their contributions to our collective story as a nation. Also, I believe we should start giving as much or even greater value to immaterial than material contributions to our common heritage. Lizards and rodents are playing Tabala and Sciseau in the sports complex Marc Vivien Foé tried to build which we have abandoned (material), but the memories he created in the nation and careers he impacted stand tall as his legacy (immaterial).
That said, unless we want to go fishing in swimming pools, if we are looking for Manu’s legacy, then we should be looking at the immaterial. All the wealth he had was the groove, and he was not stingy with it. He shared it. He gave it abroad and at home. He founded the Côte d’Ivoire national orchestra which gave Ivorian music that character that makes it so familiar to Cameroonians while being foreign at the same time. As a member of African Jazz, Manu played for long in Kinshasa and recorded several albums with the bands that brought us the soukous/rumba tradition whose legacy spans from Papa Wemba through Koffi Olomidé to Fally Ipupa.
In an article written by Wandji Wilfred on the subject of Manu Dibango’s contribution to Cameroon, someone commented that “since he contributed so much abroad, they may as well build him an airport in those countries because he popularized their music and not ours”. That is another utterance reflecting our limited cultural education of his contribution to our own music.
Everyone may know the “Soul Makossa” story about how Michael Jackson sampled the chorus from that song on his “Thriller” album. To understand how huge this is, note that the album “Thriller” has sold over 120 million copies worldwide to date. What that means is that if everyone who bought their copy listened only once, that line “Mamasa Mamasa Mama Makossa” from Cameroon would have been listened to 120 million times around the world. And that is if we are assuming that all the people who bought the album only listened once since it got released in 1982. Is there a better way to promote a culture?
Another question raised by commenters of Wandji Wilfred’s article is that, if Manu was great, who did he mentor? Like graffi people would say, “Na who be yi chop chair?”. Perhaps because the lack of a successor to continue one’s legacy is the ultimate sign of a wasted life. Granted. Well, there is a simple and a complex answer to that question.
The simple answer is that yes, he did mentor many. In 1970 for example, while in Cameroon, Manu was struck by the talent of a 20-year old local sensation, Talla André Marie whose band had just won a national music competition. He helped the latter get to France and sign his first international record deal with Decca records. In 1974, Talla André Marie released “Hot Koki” under that label, which was plagiarized under the title “Hustle” by none other than the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. Manu gave Talla André Marie, his big break and Talla put the bendskin genre other rhythms of the grassfields on our national soundscape.
On a project titled ‘Fleurs musicales du Cameroun”, Manu joined the National Orchestra and Francis Ndom to record what is perhaps one of the most popular Njang tunes of all times: Fe Baïn. The song’s epic line “Eh eh eh, Fai Mbuh Kéné Kéné…” is etched in memories and is a staple in the Cameroonian armed forces repertoire. With Fe Baïn, the Njang rhythm of the Northwest was introduced to national audiences. Sadly, unlike Talla, Francis Ndom did not live long enough to continue exploring Njang. Today the likes of Bobe Magasco and Vernyuy Tina have continued (timidly) exploring this genre.
I could also have answered that one of the greatest, if not the greatest Cameroonian musician still alive, Richard Bona, was welcomed by Manu’s band when he left Cameroon in 1989 for France to begin an international career. You could also add Ndedi Dibango, Etienne Mbappé, Coco Mbassi, Macase etc to the list of Cameroonian talents he welcomed in his orchestra or mentored in one way or the other. Trace TV did a little tribute video in which young and not so young artists from Youssou N’dour, through Fally Ipupa to our national King Kong paid homage to his influence.
Talking about, influence, that brings us to the less simple answer to the question of Manu’s “Chop-chair”. With all due respect to the askers, I think the question “Who did Manu nurture?” portrays a narrow understanding of the concept of mentorship in the arts and in life in general. It shows that the reader missed the whole point of WW’s initial write up which called for a deeper exploration of Manu’s works for inspiration. Let me give two examples.
The late Jaco Pastorius is considered by most as one of the greatest bassists ever. Richard Bona replaced him in the band he used to play with, the Pat Metheny Group. That band did a world tour with Bona on bass and released an album in 2002 which won a Grammy for the Best Contemporary Jazz recording. That is Richard Bona’s only Grammy so far. Now, how did Bona find himself on a Grammy-level band? Well, he got the job because people in the circuit thought that of all the bass players alive, Richard Bona was among the very few who could replicate the unique style and sound of Jaco. But Bona never met Jaco.
You see, Bona got into jazz and bass playing in the 80s because some French club owner in Douala was a Jaco fan. He gifted Bona some of Jaco’s records to study and come play for his club. Bona was mostly a guitarist back then in Makossa cabarets. When he heard Jaco’s distinctive sound, he instantly fell in love with jazz bass and aspired to play like Jaco. He immersed himself in Jaco’s music and ended up filling his idol’s shoes and winning a Grammy. Question: did Jaco nurture Bona or not? How did Bona become Jaco’s chopchair?
Second story. In 1990 Italy hosted the FIFA World Cup. A boy in Turin was so impressed by the authority and efficiency of Thomas Nkono in the goalposts that he told himself “I want to be like that guy someday”. That boy became the legendary Italy and Juventus goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon. Buffon has on several occasions credited Thomas Nkono for helping him become the great goalkeeper he became.
My point on this ‘chopchairship’- and I think it is the point WW was trying to make – is that legends inspire their followers/students by the mere fact that they existed. With all the saxophone compositions that Manu has churned out, if you can still tell me that no Cameroonian saxophonist was or can be mentored/nurtured by the mere fact that Manu Dibango existed, then the problem is the students, not the master.
Considering all the ingenious ways he blended our national rhythms with the bits of jazz and funk he picked abroad, how can we say that the mere fact that such a legend existed among us is not a treasure for our musicians of today and tomorrow to explore and make themselves Manu’s musical chop chairs?
Besides, it is even difficult to gauge the breadth of Manu’s influence because it is subtle and could have hit you even without you knowing. While aficionados like WW can brag about having copies of all Manu’s works, the beauty of Manu’s music is that it has always surrounded us. If you have watched or watch the evening news on CRTV, or if you were forced to do so by your parents when they seized that remote control to interrupt your Telenovelas, the reggae-ish funky beat played before and after the news is from a track on Manu’s “Gone Clear” album. The title of the song is “Frozen Soul.” Manu’s “Big Blow” is the soundtrack of the afternoon news on CRTV radio. He has scored the music of several movies you might have innocently listened to. That is decades of everyday exposure to Manu’s music in one form or the other. Who knows how many chop chairs it has spawned without even the chop chairs knowing?
Finally, for some of us young enough to be older, Manu’s “Douala Serenade” was the sound of the teenage years as Mendo Ze’s CRTV would loop it whenever they had nothing better to do. As images of beautiful landscapes from Edea to Idenau paraded the screen, our minds traveled with Manu’s wistful whistling, punctuated by the throaty saxophone solos, and that melancholic grumbling of the bass as the singers chanted “Silanyéso mba ô mboa ééh, ô mboa éeh. Mboa or home for Manu was Cameroon. He never took a foreign nationality despite living abroad for most of his life.
Could Manu have done more? Of course. But his life, as described in his biography “Three Kilos of Coffee” is a tragicomedy that narrates all the fun he had while making things happen out of Cameroon and all the trouble he went through trying to replicate that success back home. Home was where he met people who wanted fish from a guy who only brought a swimming pool. Today, he has left us a huge swimming pool as a legacy, and we are not thinking about swimming. We are still complaining that he left no fish.
Anyway, those who could/can swim will continue bathing in the immense waters Manu left behind. Some could become Olympic champions tomorrow. If you can’t swim, don’t curse the pool. If what you really need is fish, go to the lakes, seas and rivers. Or why not build a fishpond in your backyard and stop dissing every swimming pool because it didn’t give you fish?