World music's elder statesman puts aside his many saxophones to talk musical styles, modern technology and old-fashioned emotion. Simon Trask catches him onstage and off.
Manu Dibango's latest album maps a musical direction for the '90s - jazz, funk, rap, African choirs, makossa grooves and dancefloor rhythms look to the future while respecting tradition.
AN INTERVIEW WITH MANU DIBANGO IS like scanning one page of a very thick book. Now 57 years old, he's an elder statesman of African music with a long and varied musical career behind him, dating back to the 1950s. He made his recording debut, with Zairean musician Joseph Kabasele, in 1961, and had an international hit under his own name in the first half of the 70s with 'Soul Makossa'. He's lived at various times in France, Belgium, Zaire, Cameroon and America, but since 1965 has made his home in Paris. As a performer he's best known as a saxophone player, though he also plays piano, vibraphone and Hammond organ. Musically his background encompasses not only various styles of African music, including the makossa rhythms of his native Cameroon and the rumba music of Zaire, but also jazz, funk and soul. In fact, he is a true musical cosmopolite - or, as he likes to refer to himself, a negropolitain. He's also been a determined advocate of modern technology for many years, encouraging its adoption by African musicians.
Dibango is more open-minded than many musicians half his age, and to judge from his new album, Polysonik, he's still intent on charting new musical territory. Recorded in Paris and mixed in London over a space of some 18 months, with Working Week's Simon Booth producing and London rapper MC Mell 'O' providing raps on a couple of tracks, Polysonik has been inspired in part by British dance music. Ironically, then, at the time of writing it has yet to get UK distribution although it's already available in both France and Africa.
Early February saw Dibango on a rare outing to the UK with his band for a one-off date at the Town & Country Club in London, supported by Working Week. Heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures across the capital didn't stop the T&C from being packed out and the atmosphere inside the venue from being warm, with the saxophonist and his eight-piece band turning in a lively - and above all live - performance which breathed with the audience and the spirit of the moment in a way which eludes many bands.
Three days and a number of telephone calls later and I'm sitting at a table with Dibango in the bar of his London hotel. I wonder first of all, given that the T&C performance was devoid of drum machines and sequencers, if he prefers to keep this side of technology for the studio only.
"If I'm in the studio then I use one part of technology and one part of human performance, but for me live performance is about human performance", Dibango affirms in his deep, rich, musical voice. "Once in a while it happens to me to use a drum machine on stage, but if I have a good drummer then I don't need to go to sampling stuff. Though I like people who do that, I think that is another way. Also, we are not going on stage to do the same as we did on record, because my past was with jazz, and I'm still a jazz lover and a jazz musician, so I don't want to do twice the same thing. We're on a different feeling because the audience also brings something new to you. The place where you are playing, a lot of things happening when you are playing... you must have a chance to respond to that."
The dangers of relying too heavily on technology when performing on stage were brought home to Dibango some five or six years ago when a concert he was playing didn't quite go according to plan.
"I did an experimentation with somebody who was very very heavy on technology", he recalls. "We were working together and we went to play in Geneva. Everything was connected up, no problem. Then the third song, the machines said 'no' and I had to play saxophone by myself! So I said 'OK, thank you, never again. I'll go back to my roots with real people playing'.
"But I like musicians that know very much about technology - enough to be able to forget the technology' and just play, because they already know what's going on. We didn't bring it with us this time, but we have some electronic stuff with my drummer, and my guitarist has a lot of effects. We use regularly some effects in the band. Myself, a long time ago I was using a microphone in my saxophone, with pedals, wah-wah and so forth. In 74 or 75 I did the record 'Makossa Man' and I used a lot of effects, which was avant-garde at the time."
Dibango's predilection for experimenting with technology was given full reign in the electronic '80s with the burgeoning technology of drum machines, sequencers and samplers. His 1984 single 'Abele Dance', produced in Paris by Martin Meissonnier and mixed in London by Godwin Logie, saw him adopting Linn drum machines, Prophet 5 and DX7 synths and a slick modern production sound aimed firmly at the clubs. Speaking in an interview that same year, he said: "What's important to me about 'Abele Dance', maybe more than the record itself, is the way we have tried to get out of the 'ethnic music' label, to let people know that there is an electric Africa also, that people there are dealing with electricity and with computers."
DIBANGO WENT ON TO WORK WITH American producer Bill Laswell in '85, contributing to the culture-clash experiments of the Deadline album and to Sly and Robbie's Language Barrier album as well as recording his own LP Electric Africa with Laswell producing. The result is certainly electric in the technological sense, with Fairlight CMI, Yamaha DX7 and Oberheim DMX contributions from such familiar Laswell cohorts as Herbie Hancock, Wally Badarou and Bernie Worrell added to the playing of Dibango's own group. However, it lacks the richness and diversity of Afrijazzy, the album which Dibango himself produced the following year, and has often been criticised for lacking warmth.
"This is because of Laswell and the way we worked", Dibango explains. "The way Laswell is working is unique, because he has his own studio with his own technician and he wants nobody else on the desk - including the musicians. So in the beginning it was a very frozen atmosphere."
In fact, Laswell has come in for a lot of criticism in the past for his work with African musicians. As one of those musicians, what is Dibango's perspective?
"I think that maybe it is because he is a shy guy, because there is a wall between you and him, even when you are working together", he replies. "At the end you know that he is a warm guy, very sympathetic, because you talk about a lot of things beside the music, you don't talk about the music. But once in a while he'd say 'Hey, Manu, listen, what do you think about this?', and he'd take the bass and play, and if I said 'Yes, OK' he'd use the line. So somewhere there was communication, but... not easy. I was not really really easy when I was doing Electric Africa, because I did not have, how you say, habitude to working that way. I was used to being with the producer from the beginning to the end."
Dibango wanted Polysonik to continue on from Afrijazzy rather than Electric Africa, and consequently he was keen to keep it a European affair. In particular he was impressed by the willingness displayed by young British dance and jazz musicians to experiment with the combination of different musical forms.
"I wanted to have a British producer this time, and I wanted him to come to Paris so we could talk around the project before starting to play", Dibango recalls. His publisher gave him some CDs to listen to, one of which was Working Week's fourth album, Fire In The Mountain.
"I listened to all these projects and I decided that Working Week was definitely the one", he says. "I liked the music very much because it was very open, and so I decided that Simon Booth was the man I wanted to meet. I like somebody who is experimental, who deals with a lot of different stuff in music. Also, Simon is an acid jazz lover.
"So, my publisher arranged for him to come to Paris. I was already rehearsing with my rhythm people, because I had already the songs. I gave him three or four songs to listen to, and afterwards he said 'OK, we can do that, I understand where you want to go'. So it took one or two months for me still working with my people, then he came back again to Paris and we went into the studio with three pieces. We worked for the next six months, not recording continuously but once in a while, taking time, listening to what was going on. And we were always talking, bar after bar, 'How do you see that?'. We were talking architecture and relief.
"After we finished recording in Paris we were totally OK. Then about two months later I came to London and stayed ten days with Simon to do the mixing. I like recording in Paris but I don't like to mix there, because the French ear is not as good as the British ear.
"Also, Simon brought MC Mell 'O' along, because when we were talking it was a question to use a rap section in at least two songs, and so we saved room in the music. MC Mell 'O' is one of the talented guys in rap music, and we worked two days together in the studio."
From listening to Polysonik it would seem that Booth did what a good producer should do, namely help the artist realise whatever it is they want to achieve. Was this an assessment that Dibango would agree with?
"Yes, exactly. That's it", he replies. "He makes it more clear for you because he gives you maybe two ways or three ways in this situation. It's interesting to have three ways instead of one way, because you've got a choice. I am going to do another album with Simon, because only one album is not enough. Next time I'm going to ask him to bring one or two songs and we are going to work in his own way, too. That is a perfect collaboration."
"He was facing the drum machine and it was like they were playing together, there's this conversation between the machine and the man."
Is Polysonik aimed perhaps more at European than African listeners, or equally at both?
"The way I feel, the music is Afro-European", Dibango replies, "because it's coming about between France, Britain and African people who are living in France or in England but not really in the continent in Africa, you see. We have to deal with all these things. If you are going to be a musician now you must devise a new bible!
"The album is working fantastic in Africa. Even in France it's working. People are very surprised about this album, and I am surprised that they are surprised, because I did this type of music a long time ago. Nineteen years ago I did 'Ma-ma-ko, ma-ma-ssa, ma-ma-ma-ko-ssa', which is the first rap, in 1972. A lot of people are surprised I'm using rap now'. I say 'Thank you, but I'm going back!'."
WITH THE HOME STUDIO A REALITY FOR many musicians these days, has Dibango perhaps put together a setup of his own which allows him to work up musical ideas at home?
"In my home I have just a Korg M1 and a grand piano", he reveals. "When I come home and I'm in the mood to play, I sit down and put my fingers on the piano and I have a sound immediately. Whereas if I want to work by night I can work more quietly with the M1. This is for work, it's not for pleasure. The pleasure is to sit down with my piano or with my saxophones. I have eight saxophones.
"If I want to go really to work with technology I have my friend who has a 16-track studio with all that I need. My M1 is just to test some few things. Also I have a little Casio keyboard in my room here at the hotel so I can try out ideas if I want. Then when I go back to Paris I can work some more with my M1, and then after that I can go to my friend's studio and see what happens. Then if the stuff is good we'll go to a 24-track or a 48-track studio."
While he might use technology in the first place to work on musical ideas, Dibango prefers to develop the music with his musicians before using technology in the final recording process.
"We did not go programming the machines before having the song", he explains. "I mean, we rehearse the song before, all the songs, and then we take the tape, we go to the studio and then we start to put that rehearsal on machine in sequences.
"It's better to play with people before, and see if something works, and then go to the studio with the machines. I have a regular band and we have a regular studio where we go to rehearse. So once we have something for a project, we play it first maybe many times, then we take a tape and we work with the machines from the tape."
Working with drum machines and sequencers and catering to the modern taste for tight rhythmic playing is not something which, it seems, always sits easily with the much looser playing style of many African musicians. Dibango explains that getting the feel he wanted on Polysonik required an unorthodox approach.
"We would play like eight bars, and then sample something from these eight bars, because we were going to use maybe one bar of that later on. This kind of thing I like, because there are some people who play not too steady drums. Sometimes they play good but they are not in time, they cannot play two minutes really steady, so they play eight bars steady and it's OK, thank you. That's why, to get the sound of Polysonik, we did a lot of sampling like that."
Also important for Dibango was ensuring that amidst all the technology the human dimension of the music didn't somehow become lost, as he explains: "For this type of record, I set a drum machine so we have a timing and I bring the drummer and the percussionist in on that, and they're used to playing with the machine. The problem is to be able to take off the mechanical feel of the machine. The musicians know already how to deal with that. In 'Polysonik' there's some guy playing bongos at the end. He was facing the drum machine and it was like they were playing together, there's this kind of conversation between the machine and the man. That's the perfect combination."
A perfect combination it may be to Dibango, but that's not the way everybody sees it. To some people, the technology of drum machines, sequencers and samplers is a corrupting influence on African music and musicians, one more way in which the West exerts its own values and priorities on another culture. As a longtime exponent of modern technology, Dibango has little time for such attitudes.
"To be saying 'I'm the one who knows, and I'm going to tell you that you don't have to use that because you are taking off African. . .' is stupid", he says. "African musicians have been dealing with European instruments for a long time. I mean, the Portuguese came to Cameroon in the 14th century and they brought the guitar. Since that time the guitar has been very popular in Central Africa. So what? It's technology already. You bring computers now, four centuries ago you brought something else. So we're used to dealing with this. But this level now, it looks so heavy that people are afraid, and they forget that a lot of African musicians are playing guitar, keyboards, saxophones and drum kits which are Western instruments.
"Technology is a natural extension of your playing. You save time, you are more in control, and it's only machines. A machine is a vehicle, no more, no less. What time is it going to take me to get there? I know that with machines I'll save time."
In Britain we take the availability of recording studios and the latest technology very much for granted - as we do the infrastructure which makes possible a thriving and diverse music industry - but musicians in Africa are beset by many problems in these areas. What is Dibango's assessment of the state of the recording industry in his native Cameroon?
"Bad", he replies sombrely. "There are enough musicians in Cameroon and good musicians, really, to have a studio. But this is a political problem, because in our country there is confusion between politics and government. There are the same people doing politics and the same people at the administration, so it's not easy to work with them because you are not free and you cannot put money into recording studios because they do not understand.
"The situation is so bad that musicians are now going across the border to Nigeria - 45 minutes and you are in Lagos. You can record in Lagos, even you can go to record in Libraville. They've got 32 tracks and 24 tracks. They have a digital studio in Libraville.
"But generally the situation is bad, which is why most of the musicians, if they are able to come they are coming to Europe, because the structures for the music are not yet correct in Africa. It's not the money problem, it's a political problem. It's not at all a money problem."
Finally, with his T&C performance being so well received, can we expect to see Dibango performing more often in Britain?
"I hope we are coming more and more, because it looked like people enjoyed it", he comments. "It was positive. A lot of people despite the snow problem, the political problems... See, music is the real weapon. It's unique, because only music can bring people together like that. Almost two thousand people in that place on Saturday. It was a warm atmosphere. People loving music. Because, to go outside in the snow and the cold just to put your hand in your pocket to pay something, I respect that very much. Very much."
Interview by Simon Trask
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