Manu Dibango will never die. I have seen it in those eyes of his that sparkle like a meteor. But also know this because I heard it in the opening verse of “Pata Piya,” the first track on his 1985 album, Electric Africa. He did not outright say it, but if you listen with the kind of superstitious zeal I approach his music with, you’ll hear it too: the voice underneath’s Manu’s voice. Look closely when he smiles, and you notice the glint on the curves of his lips that says “I’ll live forever.”
His appears to be a smile of someone aware of both the meaningfulness and meaninglessness of this existence.
While birth records claim Manu was born on the 12th day of the 12th month in the 33rd year of the twentieth century, I am convinced Manu made his apparition many centuries earlier.
Apparently, one day in 1985 he teleported himself to the second half of the second decade of the 21st century. The Africa he encountered pulsated with a youth-driven energy not unlike the kind that he witnessed gripping the continent in the post-independence era.
As he trekked from Nigeria’s Yabacon Valley to Kenya’s Silicon Savannah by way of Cameroon’s Silicon Mountain, he noticed that the future was powered by algorithms, codes and digital networks rather than by liberators and illusionists spinning nationalists and political visions on podiums. The world of podcasts, gifs and memes possessed him.
Astonished, the hairless maestro then time-travelled two centuries back to the shores of the Wouri and Sanaga rivers where he sang and danced in the doorways of shrines. Possessed by spirits of both the past and future, he returned to 1985 with music to alert us of the coming age.
Whether or not we listened doesn’t seem to matter now that it is settled that those stories about Manu being born an only child were just meant to distract us from the fact that no one actually knows when he first appeared. For all we know, Manu like Sun-Ra could be from a place in the cosmos our language is still not quite sophisticated to name.
What the likes of Herbie Hancock, Bill Laswell and his fellow bandmates at “African Jazz” might not have known is that before Manu’s funk phase in the 1970s, centuries earlier he was a flute player in the court of His Royal Highness Lukeni lua Nimi’s of Kongo; he played kora during Mansa Musa’s birth, and was seen singing in the choir of the Anglican Church where Fela Kuti was baptized.
If Manu thought he could continue to conceal his true identity in plain view as he successfully did in the prior century, he was not only dead wrong, he seemed to underestimate the science that sustains his agelessness. While this oversight hints at his humanity, in my view, it is yet another reminder that even immortals like him are not infallible.
As long as Manu has been active, he has provided evidence that his is a life not unlike other earthlings. After all, not many African recording artists can claim entry to the billboard top 40 by way of a Brooklyn West Indian record store. How likely was it that the record, Soul Makossa would find itself in the hands of influential Greenwich Village figure David Mancuso? Who could have imagined this track would land on Frankie Crocker’s radar—at the time one of New York City’s most celebrated DJs on its most popular Black radio station?
Soul Makossa, which was original released as the B-side for a record meant to celebrate Cameroon’s hosting of the 1972 African Nations Cup, would gate-crash the disco wave, ride it into the 1980s when Manu transformed himself again into the voice that likely nudged Quincy and Michael to add that coda at the end of “wanna be startin’ somethin’.”
Manu was telling us he ain’t goin’ nowhere. Listen closely to Electric Africa, you’ll recognize the voice.