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Manu Dibango on Michael Jackson

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Monday, 27 July 2009 00:00

How a hit single from the king of the soul

saxophone Manu Dibango influenced a young Michael Jackson as he was

writing the record-breaking Thriller album

When a B-side called ‘Soul Makossa’ from a then-unknown Cameroonian saxophonist called Manu Dibango blew up in the New York underground disco scene in 1973, a young Michael Jackson was just putting together a new set of songs for what was going to be the best-selling album of all time – Thriller. But the King of Pop was more than a little inspired by the pulsating Makossa rhythms that were being played in heavy rotation at loft parties, on New York radios and had fast become a favourite among club DJs.

A legal case was mounted showing Jackson had borrowed heavily from Dibango’s hit for the song ‘Got to be Starting Something’, and they settled out of court. But that was not the end of the affair – the Barbadian singer Rihanna recently sampled the Jackson hit and asked Michael Jackson for permission, but not Dibango – who has taken both of them to court. Speaking to The Africa Report from the PanAfrican Festival in Algeria, Dibango said, “I’m not bitter. He was out of the ordinary – but in both good and bad ways. Obviously he touched millions of people with his music, I love his music, and he certainly danced like an angel. You know, Wagner was a fascist, but that doesn’t mean you can’t like his music. What he did in agreeing to allow Rihanna to use the sample without asking – that’s not right.”?

The fame generated from Dibango’s smash hit changed his life. “I was invited by the musical fraternity in the United States to play all over the country. Suddenly I was a star.” Playing alongside icons like James Brown helped transform him into a top-flight performer. “You can even see me in the video to ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, the epic encounter between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman,” he recalls.

Manu Dibango’s record company was the last in line to believe in his success – it was the first time an African artist had sold so many records, and initially they were reluctant to print more editions of the single. But just as Michael Jackson was instrumental in breaking boundaries for black muscians, so too was Dibango an important pioneer in his own right.

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