After a 21-day cruise in the sea, Manu Dibango arrived in Marseille and moved to Saint-Calais (west). He carried with him in his bags three kilogrammes of coffee, then a rare commodity in the post-war period, to be paid to the family that hosted him.
His memoirs would later be titled Three Kilos of Coffee.
Then he studied at Chartres, where he took his first steps in the field of music on mandolin and piano.
In this white-dominated world, the teenager who admits he did not know African culture is represented by black American stars in the period of Count Pacy, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker who have become “heroes” for him.
Manu Dipango also discovered the saxophone during a summer vacation camp, and then he failed his high school diploma. His angry father decided to stop sending money to him in 1956. He moved to Brussels, where he used to play varieties to get a living.
“During that period, we should have played in bars, dance performances, and circuses,” he said.
During his stay in Belgium, he met two main people in his life, the blonde Marie-Jose known as “Coco”, who became his wife, and Joseph Kabasili, leader of the African Jazz Orchestra.
Congolese music gave him the joy of Africa, its independence from colonialism.
Manu Dibango accompanied him to Leopoldville (formerly Kinshasa), where he launched the twist wave in 1962 and then opened a hall in Cameroon.
He returned to France three years later without any money. The pianist became an accompaniment to rock singer Rick Rivers and then organist and conductor orchestra with Nino Ferrer.
In 1972 he was asked to compose an anthem for the African Cup of Nations in Cameroon. On the other side of the disc, he recorded the song Sol Makusa, which was liked by the CD organizers in New York, to start a new career with the artist.
The saxophone performed at the Apollo Theater, the stronghold of black American music in Harlem, and added new tones to his music through tours in South America.
In 1982, Michael Jackson used parts of Sol Makusa on his famous album Thriller without prior permission. Manu Dipango filed a series of suits for technical theft before the two parties reached a financial settlement.
However, the main gain was in Dibango’s transformation into a world reference in what is known as world music.
The African saxophone legend Manu Dibango died Monday in Paris after catching coronavirus.
As tributes pour in, the 86-year-old is now being remembered for fusing jazz and funk music with traditional sounds from his home country, Cameroon.
“It is with deep sadness that we announce to you the loss of Manu Dibango, our Papy Groove,” a statement on his official Facebook page read on Monday.
His family said Dibango’s funeral will take place in “strict privacy”, and have since asked people to send condolences by e-mail and tribute will be arranged “when possible”.
Top African musicians Angelique Kidjo and Youssou Ndour have led their tributes through social media. On Twitter, Kidjo shared a video, recorded two months ago, of her rehearsing the end of Soul Makossa with Dibango.
“You’re the original giant of African music and a beautiful human being,” the performer wrote.
Ndour called the Cameroonian a “genius” on the saxophone and described him as a “big brother, a pride for Cameroon and all of Africa”.
Both Ndour and Kidjo, along with other stars such as Salif Keita, Papa Wemba and King Sunny Ade, worked on Dibango’s 1994 album Wakafrika.
Speaking to the BBC in 2013 about how he wanted to be remembered, Dibango said: “When you are gone, it is finished, it is not up to me to say, I want this.”
Born in the Cameroonian city of Douala in 1933—which at the time was under French colonial rule—he grew up in a religious Protestant family, the AFP news agency reports, and his first musical influences came from the church.
“I’m a child raised in the ‘Hallelujah’,” he is quoted as saying. But he drew on many influences and was well known for his eclectic style.
“I play different kinds of music before playing my own. I think that that’s very important to play other people’s music,” he told the BBC in 2017.
“As you are African they expect you always to play African. Forget that. You’re not a musician because you’re African. You’re a musician because you are musician.
Dibango failed his high school exams after being distracted by music. That’s when he was sent to high school in France. After a 21-day cruise in the sea, young Manu Dibango arrived in Marseille carrying in his bags three kilogrammes of coffee to pay his hosts.
But his dream was to learn how to play the saxophone.