I would drive out to Sidi Fredj on the beaches to the west of Algiers, or even further west to Zeralda, to watch him perform in the 1970s and 80s, but I never got the opportunity to talk to him.
But in 1982 I got my chance when I found we were staying in the same hotel in Luanda, Angola, where he had come for a number of shows to cheer up the suffering Angolans fighting against Jonas Savimbi and his National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) fighters who were being armed, controlled and directed by Apartheid South Africa and the American Central Intelligence Agency to destabilise the young People’s Republic of Angola.
Manu Dibango, the great maestro of Afro-jazz was more than approachable, kind and humorous, a little too willing to subtract from his still growing fame. He talked of his move to France at a very early age, his love with the saxophone and the attachment he still kept with Cameroon, which he visited quite often.
But when I asked him about his most popular song, Soul Makossa, he surprised me by saying that he did not like it too much because, according to him, it was “un scandals, presque un vol”, (a scandal, almost a theft).
Needless to say, I was taken aback, till he gave me the story. In 1972, Cameroon was preparing to host the Confederation of African Football tournament, and they needed an anthem, so they sent Manu to Paris to record one.
After three or four weeks of arduous practice, recording, edits and retakes, the French producer finally declared, “C’est bon, monsieur!” and handed a few copies of the finished job to Manu. They went to lunch knowing that evening he would be back in Yaounde.
But at lunch the producer suddenly looked up at Manu and uttered an expletive. “You know what, we have forgotten the flip side.”
Anxious to be on that plane, Manu told me, he ate his saliva as he scribbled on the napkin, hummed to himself frenetically and tapped the tabletop furiously, in an attempt to summon a rhythm.
After lunch they hurried back to the studio, recorded the incomprehensible mumblings Manu had put together, dubbed it ‘Soul Makossa’, and Manu was on the evening plane to Yaounde.
“Now,” he said to me, “Well, I have to suffer it because the royalties are not bad at all.”
That’s the story that came to my mind as I received the sad news of the passing of the man with the big frame and broad smile. Manu, the titan of Afro-jazz, had gone to commune with the spirits of the Yabassi elders.
That sadness mingled with the reminder that we are in the middle of a world pandemic that we are all called upon to respect and observe the strictures we have been given in order for us to emerge out of it with minimum damage.Which is why we must guard against demagogues of all sorts.
In particular, I have been scandalised by the ruling party ‘Squealer’ who had no shame to go on TV to declare that the coronavirus is like the opposition, knowing very well that is an inflammatory statement.
Not to be outdone in this race to the bottom of rationality, the Dar es Salaam governor went public to openly celebrate the fact that the son of the leader of the opposition has been diagnosed with the virus and is under treatment. (The same man is on record saying no one is permitted to declare anyone sick except the designated authorities, and he is not one of them).
To spread this celebratory message, the great lord of Dar es Salaam collected a sizeable crowd of upcountry-bound bus passengers so that they could hear his wisdom, at a time when such meetings have been banned by… himself!
We may somehow defeat the coronavirus, by some miracle, but it will not be because we have sane leaders, and long after corona is gone, idiocy will still be with us.
Covid-19 is bad enough without madmen running about uttering dangerous word, especially when they claim to, and actually do, hold positions of leadership.
Rest in Peace, Manu! At least where you are now you don’t have these people.
Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]