June 30, 2009
Posted: 03:36 PM ET
by Kelefa Sanneh via 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.
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