Soul Makossa by Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango dates back to 1972 and is often cited as one of the first disco records ever. By any measure, the record was and remains a staggeringly successful hit.
The history of Soul Makossa is remarkable. For the eighth edition of the African Nations Cup in 1972, Manu Dibango wrote the track Mouvement Ewondo, but it was the b-side of the record that turned out to become the biggest African hit of all time. Makossa, a Cameroonian dance, was the base of the song, and Dibango completely rebuilt it according to the latest musical trends, incorporating funk and soul influences.
The song owes its reputation to the chanted Duala refrain "ma-mako, ma-ma-sa, mako-mako ssa" (a play in the word "Makossa", Dibango's main music genre), which would go on to be used/sampled by a long list of artists, the most well known of these being Michael Jackson who used it in the last bridge of Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' (from the 04:44 mark).
Manu Dibango wasn't credited, so naturally he sued Michael Jackson for copyright infringement, and the two reached an out-of-court settlement.
Considering that the song’s chart success, longevity and popularity with artists (especially hip-hop artists), it is ironic that Manu’s record company (both Yaounde and Paris offices) did not see much in the track. Fortunately, African-American music fans did. In 1972, dance pioneer David Mancuso found an original copy of the single in Brooklyn, and played the tune frequently during his famous loft parties. Soul Makossa was so well received that the few copies available in New York City sold out in a short time. The song’s popularity grew even further once the well-known radio DJ Frankie Crocker played the song repeatedly during his shows at the then famous radio station WBLS.
Demand for Soul Makossa grew along with it popularity, but there were no more copies to be had in New York, so American bands started recording cover versions, and more than 20 of them did so before Atlantic record label put the original back on the market, and in 1973 it rose to number 35 on the Billboard chart, accompanied by nine other versions of the song.
In light of the song’s success in America, a quick month-long tour was organized, with ten evenings at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem. It was a dream come true for Manu and his musicians, but it also touched something in black Americans as they saw an expression of their cultural roots in Manu’s music.
Meanwhile Manu´s French label now understood that this hitherto “difficult to place” musician was a huge asset, and at the end of 1973 Manu killed it at the Olympia in Paris. Manu Dibango was now a star, and the red carpet was rolled out for an even bigger US tour, and again the man went down a storm.
Soul Makossa remains the only song by an African artist to crack the American Top 40, and it was also a hit in Europe and, of course, in Cameroon and other countries in sub-Sahara Africa. In fact, I’m not aware of any country in sub-Sahara Africa where people wouldn’t recognise it if they heard it on the radio. It was, and remains, that popular (although I have no idea how it fared/fares in North African countries).
Dibango, in a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, said, “Now everyone in Cameroon knows Makossa. It's like a waltz or tango here, but Soul Makossa is my own version, my point of view.”
Manu Dibango recorded a second version of the song – Soul Makossa 2.0 – in 2011, with artist/producer/hit maker Wayne Beckford, and released it as the first single of the album Past Present Future.
It’s a pretty good version for a new generation of music fans, but to these ears the magic is in the original, which, forty-one years on, continues to fascinate artists. Year after year, that refrain keeps cropping up in new songs, with some artists still failing to credit Manu Dibango or ask for permission to use it, which was why he ended up suing Michael for a second time, this time because of a Rihanna song. Michael had agreed for Rihanna to sample Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin', which she did on Don’t Stop the Music, but she never contacted Manu about this, so Michael was credited but Manu wasn’t. Michael died before the trial.
You can still find vinyl copies of the French (Fiesta Records) and American (Atlantic Records) release, but if you prefer downloads, then you should check out one of the collections, like The Very Best of Manu Dibango: Afro Soul Jazz from the Original Makossa Man or the more exhaustive 34-track Manu Dibango: Anthology.
Since that refrain continues to crop up, we can’t end this piece without embedding a few examples. So here goes:
The Fugees – Cowboys (1996; at the 03:04 mark)
Will Smith - Gettin' Jiggy Wit It (1997; at the 01:17 mark)
Jay-Z feat. Sauce Money - Face Off (1997; sample layered in the mix at 00:04 mark and throughout)
Eminem Ft Outsidaz - Macosa (1999; at the 01:13 mark)
Jennifer Lopez feat. Big Pun and Fat Joe - Feelin' So Good (Video Version) (2000; long sample from the 02:50 mark)
El Chojin - Algo más que música (2005; at the 01:02 mark)
The Caramel Club - Mama Say Mama Sa (2006; from the 00:14 mark and throughout)
Rihanna - Don't Stop the Music (2007; at the 01:00 mark)
Charles Hamilton - Brooklyn Girls (2008; at the 02:34 mark)
Kanye West feat. Bon Iver, Alicia Keys and Charlie Wilson - Lost in the World (2010; at the 02:05 mark)
Childish Gambino - You See Me (2011; at the 00:45 mark)
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Farewell American Primitive (2012; at the 01:34 mark)
With Manu Dibango’s history of going uncredited, it won’t surprise you to learn that he started keeping a YouTube record of “uses” a few years ago.