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The loss of “Papa Dibango”, who died from COVID-19 on 24 March at the age of 86, has left a large void. His fans could not even console themselves with his music, as no tribute concert could be organised due to the pandemic that continues to grip the planet.
A few re-releases have brought a little light to this prolonged period of mourning. These included a vinyl release this past summer of the album Gone Clear, The Complete Kingston Sessions. This reggae album was released by the label Soul Makossa and was a collaboration with the Jamaican duo Sly & Robbie.
More recently, the Frémeaux & Associates label has given Negropolitaines a new voice. The album, conceived with the musician during his lifetime, assembles titles that had previously appeared in Les Négropolitaines volumes 1 and 2, released respectively in 1989 and 1992 by Soul Makossa. He created a musical tour of Africa mixing new and standard compositions, such as Independence Cha Cha by Grand Kallé and Pata Pata by Miriam Makeba.
Concerts in Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon
Apart from curating these indispensable but well-known melodies and the release of a quickly put together “Best of” album by Universal, no album of tributes or new songs has been released. His family, deeply hurt by the rumours prematurely announcing his death, accompanied his remains to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris in an intimate ceremony. They have yet to organise the funeral they wanted for him.
There are ongoing efforts to organise tribute concerts in the spirit of celebrating his life through music. His son Michel mentioned in several interviews from this past summer that there will be concerts organised for “end 2020, beginning 2021” not only in France, but also in Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon.
The pandemic has forced schedule changes, but the project remains, headed by Claire Diboa, the artist’s manager. The Manu Dibango Orchestra (of whom most of the members come from the Soul Makossa Gang, the group that accompanied Manu in recent years) intends to bring the Cameroonian’s music to life live.
“Deprived of his work”
To understand the relative musical silence that followed Dibango’s death, it was necessary to contact Thierry Durepaire, who now manages the Soul Makossa company, owner of the vast majority of the artist’s musical editions. “When I took over Soul Makossa in 2015, it was a huge mess… We’ve spent our time since then putting his discography back in order, illegally plundered by a bunch of crooks for more than 20 years,” he says.
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According to Durepaire, nearly 80% of the physical or digital editions of Dibango’s works didn’t pay him a cent. “Neither Manu or Soul Makossa were paid!” the manager protests. “It’s hard to believe, but he has lived all this time essentially on ticket sales from his concerts, and not from sales of his recorded work. When I set the record straight in 2015 and explained the situation to him, he was deeply distressed. It wasn’t just a financial issue. Manu suffered above all from having been deprived of his work.”
Every time we managed to bring an album home, Manu would treat himself to a glass of champagne.
Soul Makossa, therefore, spent several years (and continues to do so today) hunting down illegal content, which is no easy task. “One day we met with representatives from the English label MRC who wanted to make an album with us,” says Durepaire. “We told them that we were happy to meet with them because they had already sold 28 Manu records without us receiving any royalties! They released two albums at the same time, without our agreement. You have to understand that to stop this kind of company, you have to take legal action abroad: we don’t necessarily have the finances to counter them.”
Music publishers have nonetheless succeeded in imposing a “great digital shutdown”, leading some thirty music platforms (Deezer, Spotify, Youtube…) to remove fraudulent digital content and replace it with work licenced under Soul Makossa. “Every time we managed to bring an album home, Manu would treat himself to a glass of champagne,” recalls Durepaire jokingly.
Other areas remain untended, notably social media. Soul Makossa explains that the management of Manu Dibango’s official Facebook page – with a total of 68000 subscribers – was confiscated by a former collaborator of the artist. “He even blackmailed us by asking us for money to recover our log in details on the day of Manu’s funeral,” says Durepaire.
Vinyl and unpublished re-releases
The manager though wants to look to the future. The record label company has already reissued and released several vinyls. The albums Gone Clear and Waka Juju, both released in limited edition with only 1000 copies in total, both sold out. Waka Juju is due to be released in a transparent vinyl version, along with other great albums by the artist including Afrovision and CubAfrica, accompanied by booklets describing the vision behind the albums’ creations.
There are also plans to debut some unreleased works. During an interview in 2019, Dibango told us that he was working on a project with Adama Bilorou, a balafon player, with whom he wanted to revive many African standards. The album, whose recording began in February 2020, is “almost finished” and in its mixing phase. It should be released in 2021.
A few live performances might also be edited, such as the one that took place at the Grand Rex – the site of Manu’s last major Parisian concert in October 2019 – or the one at the Montpellier Opera, the location of his very last performance. If released, audiences will have a chance to take part in a fabulous “symphonic safari”. His audience can’t resist listening to even his musical oddities, as proved by the re-release in 2019 of African Voodoo (from Hot Casa Records), a compilation of soul, jazz and funky tracks recorded in 1971 and originally intended to accompany commercials.
“For a lot of people, Manu is just a nice big guy and one of Soul Makossa’s hits…” says Durepaire. “There’s so much to discover about him! His career started at the end of the 1950s, he has tried all styles, and there are still some incredible gems to be found. The whole point, now that we’ve managed to bring most of the albums home, is to keep his music alive.”
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