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How Manu Dibango's afrofunk “Soul Makossa” found its way into western pop classics

Source Material encourages investigation into the origins of songs, albums and films. Adaptations, cover versions, sequels and remakes are open to inquiry and scrutiny, enabling us to evaluate the changing shape of an idea through various forms.

"Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma ku sa, ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma ko sa"

The end of Michael Jackson’s 1982 Thriller classic “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” contains one of the most iconic lyrical refrains in music history. But what most don’t know is that it’s primarily the work of another artist – specifically, Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango.

Ten years before the exciting, electronic exhilaration of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, Dibango released the afrofunk classic “Soul Makossa” from the album of the same name – a release largely considered one of the world’s first disco albums. After slightly tweaking Dibango’s delivery for his song’s climatic coda, Jackson settled with the Cameroonian out of court, agreeing to waive future rights – but not future use – of “Soul Makossa”’s parts. Since the early 70s these parts have been interpolated and sampled into works from artists as diverse as KC & The Sunshine Band, Poor Righteous Teachers and Girl Talk – though specifically it is the evolving use of the vocal refrain that proves the most interesting case study.

Fast forwarding a couple of decades, the refrain (and legal disputes) re-emerges in eminent western pop music again in the shape of Rihanna’s 2007 hit single "Don’t Stop the Music", and Dibango’s remake of his original track entitled “Soul Makosa 2.0” in 2011. Ultra sexified, digitalised and filled with an incessant reprise of “the club”, the songs encapsulate today’s top 40 music machine, the pervasive properties and influence of western pop ideals, and the creative power of sampling and appropriation to give new birth to old sounds.

Taking phrases from a song out of its original context and repurposing it into something fresh with thematic and idyllic differences allows us to see and analyse it in a different light and from a fresh perspective. Adaptations. Covers. Remakes. Revisions. Samples. Such things, even across different mediums and platforms, allow us to compare, contrast and contemplate their differences. When transposed across cultures as in the case of Dibango, Jackson and Rhianna, this kind of obfuscation helps to uncover and highlight the power relations and differences between the industries, production principles and audiences that respectively drive them.

One of Cameroon’s most famous musical exports, much of Dibango’s work (“Soul Makossa” included) is imbued with a desire to represent all his nation’s musical currents; to produce a unified image of the nation, fashioning divides into platforms for commonality. Written in his parent’s basement in the Cameroonian city of Douala using his own twist on the country’s traditional makossa rhythm (a popular Cameroonian musical style which he playfully mispronounces in the hook), “Soul Makossa” would provide the west with the inspiration for one of its most iconic musical moments.

The track took off overseas after finding its way to New York, turning into an underground hit in the emerging disco scene, and interestingly, proving far more popular there than back home. While western music is split into an innumerable number of categories, the “genre” of world music appropriates the sounds of various localities, areas and ethnic domains into a homogenous slab to appeal to the exotic desires of western markets. As standalone entities, “Soul Makossa” and Dibango are more appreciated outside of their home country under the world music banner.

Many in Cameroon are critical of Dibango’s relocation overseas, while the improper (though playful) elocution of “makossa” in his hook provide another example of the ideals lost on westerners. Though much of the original mood was lost across cultures, this provided a regiment that brought Dibango further into the public sphere, a regiment that helped blaze the trail for a new musical direction, but most notably, a regiment that enabled westerners to see the hook in a different, creative light.

With Jackson already the most famous man in music before the release of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, his track arguably made more difference to the life of Dibango in the western domain. Thriller was a worldwide smash, with its fourth single shifting millions of copies much like “The Girl Is Mine”, “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” preceding it. The Dibango-inspired finale provides “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”’s key attraction, though drenched in studio effects the hook’s reincarnation sounds completely different, hiding amongst the time’s prevalent disco idiosyncrasies. Many listeners continue to find comfort and gratification in the coda’s hypnotic, tribal and exotic nature, though among the rest of the track, it at times approximates to little more than a foreign gimmick.

If Jackson’s use was from another planet, Rhianna’s was from another universe; the hook’s essence and origins even further distorted, evoking a setting as far as removed from its conception in the streets of Douala as possible. Even before seeing the accompanying video clip for “Don’t Stop the Music”, the seductive movements, flashing lights and tight-fitting clothes permeating nightclubs spring to mind with no visual aid. Imbuing Dibango’s refrain with much of the carefree amatory and escape from the humdrum the masses crave, the track epitomises, in addition to the potential power relations between western pop production and consumption, the ability of things such as sampling and cover versions to completely change the shape of an idea.

Where Dibango’s song was produced in the name of cultural reform, Jackson and Rhianna’s were produced primarily for mass consumption. Where Dibango’s song was about progressive development, Jackson and Rhianna’s largely replicated existing trends. Where Dibango’s song aims to appeal to those from a particular subculture or ideology, Jackson and Rhianna’s appeal to a general audience. Ostensibly the three songs are very different- their differences stark, their values starker. Yet, they contain the same key ingredient.

While the origin and popularity of these ideals are most prevalent in the west, they are no longer strictly confined there. Dibango’s 2011 “Soul Makossa” remake ("Soul Makossa 2.0") shares little more than its title with the original 1972 track, with only parts of the original vocal and horn phrases intact. The revisit, imbued with a techno breakbeat, synths and a modest rap from British-Jamaican pop/RnB figure Wayne Beckford, provides the perfect microcosm of today’s archetypal pop song: an entity coalescing together the previously separate domains of mainstream pop, dance, RnB and hip hop, colliding at a rate similar to that of their high volume production.

More David Bowie than Ziggy Stardust and more “Talk” than “Computer Love”, the same mainstream embellishments of Dibango’s hook used by the likes of Jackson and Rhianna have remarkably come full circle, filtering back to the east and original artist himself some 40 years later. The ubiquitous omnipresence of the western pop machine has never been so pervasive, “Soul Makossa 2.0” providing just one of its many examples.

While the same Dibango hook is used across all versions, each track epitomises something different. Dibango couldn’t have conceived his mispronunciation of a local dance genre would be enjoyed all over the world many years later, especially in the very different forms and contexts in which it has emerged. But that is one of the most thought-provoking, exciting things about revisiting and repurposing sounds: the ability to conjure and represent different moods, emotions and ideals to fashion something very familiar, but simultaneously, very foreign.

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