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« Music: Capturing the Cameroon Sound | Main | Losers and Winners – Biya’s new Government in Cameroon »

Wednesday, 01 July 2009


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From The New Yorker


The news of Michael Jackson’s death arrived late on Thursday afternoon, and the great outpouring of celebrity eulogies began immediately. Steven Spielberg: “His talent, his wonderment, and his mystery make him legend.” Beyoncé: “He was magic.” John Mayer: “I truly hope he is memorialized as the ’83 moonwalking, MTV-owning, mesmerizing, unstoppable, invincible Michael Jackson.” And, from France, a gracious statement came from Manu Dibango, the seventy-five-year-old African pop pioneer. He mourned the loss of “un artiste exceptionnel, le plus talentueux et ingénieux” (no translation necessary).

Dibango was one of countless people whose lives were changed by Jackson’s music, although in Dibango’s case the changing was mutual. He was born and reared in Cameroon, and was already a local favorite when he recorded a song for the Cameroon soccer team. The result was a 1972 single called “Mouvement Ewondo,” but it was the B side—“Soul Makossa,” a honking, galloping funk track—that was the real hit, in Africa, in Europe, and in America, where it came to be seen as one of the first disco records. A generation of disk jockeys learned to wield the power of the song’s famous introduction: a hard beat, a single guitar chord, and Dibango’s low growl. He named his song after the makossa, a Cameroonian dance, but he stretched the word out, played with it: “Ma-mako, ma-ma-ssa, mako-makossa.”

About a decade later, Dibango was in Paris, listening to the radio at his apartment, when he heard something familiar: those same syllables, more or less, in a very different context. The d.j. was playing “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the unconventional first song from “Thriller.” It is more than six minutes long, and although the music is exuberant throughout, the lyrics aren’t as silly as they first sound: paranoia (“Still they hate you, you’re a vegetable/You’re just a buffet, you’re a vegetable”) gives way to exhortation (“If you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby”) and, eventually, inspiration (“I believe in me/So you believe in you”). The galloping rhythm sounds a bit like “Soul Makossa,” and near the end Jackson acknowledges the debt by singing words that many listeners mistook for nonsense: “Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa.” Soon, Dibango’s phone started ringing. Friends and relatives were calling to offer their congratulations: Michael Jackson was singing his song! But Dibango’s pride turned to puzzlement when he bought the album, only to find that the song was credited to Michael Jackson and no one else.

Dibango eventually worked out a financial agreement with Jackson, and he made his peace with “Thriller,” which might be (depending on how you keep score) the most popular album of all time. Jackson seemed to have made his peace with “Thriller,” too. Although he released four more albums of new music in his lifetime, all multimillion sellers, and although he also had a lifetime’s worth of great songs that predated “Thriller,” he didn’t seem resentful about the album that came to define him. If “Thriller” sometimes obscured his lesser achievements, it also upstaged his greatest disasters: despite the noise from the child-molestation scandals, his mutating appearance, and his escalating eccentricity, those nine songs—almost all of which were released as singles—were louder.

Jackson gradually withdrew from the Top Forty scrum, but his songs never did. In 2007, the pop singer Rihanna had a hit with “Don’t Stop the Music,” which was based on “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” She sings along with the old syllables: “Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa.” Once again, Dibango heard his chant on the radio, and, once again, he noticed that he wasn’t given credit. (Jackson is listed as a co-songwriter, but not Dibango.) And so the process started anew. When Jackson died, Dibango was still waiting for a French court to decide whether he was owed damages for Rihanna’s use of Jackson’s version of Dibango’s chant. When he was asked about this, Dibango replied, through his manager, that it didn’t seem right to talk about it just now. His relationship with Jackson may have been complicated, but his reaction to Jackson’s death wasn’t: he was, he said, “very sad.”

Thursday night in New York was hot—after weeks of rain, it was one of the first real summer nights of the year. Car windows were open all over the city, and just about every station on the radio dial had switched to an all-Michael Jackson format; for the first (and, for all we know, the last) time, it felt as if absolutely everyone was listening to the same songs. Later that night, at least one bar in Brooklyn continued the celebration into the early hours of Friday. If you lived above it, you may have found yourself awake at 3 A.M., listening to a song you knew by heart: that familiar thump, that familiar chant. As Jackson and Dibango and millions of listeners discovered, you can’t escape “Thriller.” But, then, why would you want to?

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