Manu Dibango, African Musician and Michael Jackson Influence, Dies of Coronavirus at 86

Manu Dibango with the Orchestra National

Manu Dibango, the pioneering Cameroonian jazz musician whose song “Soul Makossa” was interpolated in Michael Jackson’s hit “Wanna Be Starting Something,” died in Paris Tuesday after contracting Covid-19, according to The Guardian and multiple news outlets. He was 86.

A message on his Facebook page reads, “His funeral service will be held in strict privacy, and a tribute to his memory will be organized when possible.”

Dibango was born in Douala, Cameroon in 1933 and attended school in France. There, he became a musician, becoming adept at piano, saxophone and the vibraphone while attending jazz concerts in Paris, where he saw Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and others. He became a professional musician and joined the group Africa Jazz, and returned to Paris in 1965. Over the years he fused his multiple influences into a sort of Afro-jazz-funk hybrid, which spawned an international hit in 1972 with “Soul Makossa,” which features an unforgettable sax line and his own spoken vocals.

The murmured line near the beginning of the song — “mama-say, mama-sa, ma-makossa” — was interpolated by Jackson on his 1983 hit “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Dibango sued Jackson — the sole writer on the song, which was produced by the singer and Quincy Jones — over the uncredited interpolation and won in a 1986 court settlement that reports said was a flat fee of 1 million francs. Twenty one years later, Rihanna sampled that segment of Jackson’s song for her single “Don’t Stop the Music” and Dibango took them both to court, although his complaint was deemed inadmissible. Somewhat ironically, when Madonna paid tribute to Jackson at her first concert after his death in 2009, one of her dancers did a Jackson impersonation while her backing vocalists sang Dibango’s interpolated line.

Dibango enjoyed a long and fruitful career, collaborating with Fela Kuti, Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela and many others, and his music was sampled by multiple artists. He continued to record and tour into the present day, releasing his final album “Balade En Saxo” in 2013 and performing live as recently as last year.