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Interview with Manu Dibango

Born in Cameroon, Parisian by adoption, Manu Dibango is one of the first musicians to blend traditional African music and jazz. His music has been called American in France, European in Africa, and African in the United States, but he refuses to be labelled and proclaims that he belongs to the "race of musicians".

What are your earliest memories?

I was born at Douala in Cameroon. My father and mother were Protestants. When I was very young they enrolled me at the village school where I first learned Douala, one of my country's main languages. After school I went to the chapel, where my mother led the women's choir and the pastor commented on the Old and New Testaments translated into Douala. It was there that I caught the magical virus of music.

Were you a musical family?


My father was a civil servant, a job which carried some prestige. At that time there was no radio. But we were lucky enough to have a gramophone. I listened to it surreptitiously when my parents weren't there. My mother was a dressmaker and taught apprentices at home. We sang all day long. I was the conductor. What I liked most of all was to marshal the voices into a human instrument that sounded right and true. Eventually the tunes I learned became so much a part of me that later on when I was in France and heard a Bach cantata that I had learned at chapel I thought at first that I was listening to music from back home...


What kind of music did you listen to when you went out?


After being a German colony, Cameroon became a French protectorate. When the French navy came to Douala, they brought modern Western music with them. African performers played in the bars and hotels where white people stayed. When the Africans came back to the district where they lived, they taught us the fashionable tunes. Well, more or less... We children changed these approximations in our turn. There was also initiation music, which was played with drums and wooden instruments such as tom-toms. And we heard traditional guitarists at weddings and funerals. But the guitar isn't an African instrument... Yes and no. The guitar reached Cameroon with the Portuguese in the fourteenth century. In Cameroon we use the guitar to play assico, dance music which is also found in Nigeria. Its rhythm is binary and not ternary like jazz. The Cameroonian guitarist achieved the feat of playing tune¬ fully, harmoniously and percussively. There was also another form of popular music, Ambass B, an abbreviation for "Ambassade de Belgique", a derivative oí assico, but more strongly marked by Western influences. This music originated with the Africans who worked for the whites. Within a few years it had become popular. It's immediately recognizable, with a harmony from the West and a typically Cameroonian rhythm.


But the guitar isn't an African instrument...


Yes and no. The guitar reached Cameroon with the Portuguese in the fourteenth century. In Cameroon we use the guitar to play assico, dance music which is also found in Nigeria. Its rhythm is binary and not ternary like jazz. The Cameroonian guitarist achieved the feat of playing tune¬ fully, harmoniously and percussively. There was also another form of popular music, Ambass B, an abbreviation for "Ambassade de Belgique", a derivative oí assico, but more strongly marked by Western influences. This music originated with the Africans who worked for the whites. Within a few years it had become popular. It's immediately recognizable, with a harmony from the West and a typically Cameroonian rhythm.


When you heard Western music in Cameroon, did you feel that you were listening to foreign music?


When I was a child I didn't know the difference. We assimilated the songs we learned from the sailors and gave them a flavour of our own. We were curious and absorbed all forms of music without troubling to find out in each case what came from the blacks and what came from the whites....


What about instruments?


My African school teacher played the violin and the piano. The Cameroonians quickly adopted the musical instruments introduced by the Westerners. Some Cameroonians even played string quartets.... I came across these instruments at the chapel and at home. They were part of my life.


How did you become a musician?


My elder brother had a guitar. I wasn't allowed to touch it, of course that's why I played it! I also had a harmonica that my father had bought. I was feeling my way. It was only when I arrived in France at the age of fifteen that my father paid for me to have piano lessons. I soon realized that I was a musician because I loved music. But at that time I never dreamed of becoming a professional.


Why did you go to France?


To study for a diploma, as some of us children did in those days. I took piano lessons as well. I should have liked to learn the violin, but it was too late. You have to start when you are five. The piano plus Protestantism add up to jazz. This is certainly one of the key factors in my musical environment. In jazz you always find traces of gospel, the religious melodies which American blacks transposed into their music. How happy I was the first time I heard Louis Armstrong humming on the radio! Here was a black voice singing tunes that reminded me of those I had learned at the temple. I immediately felt at one with the warmth of that voice and with what it was singing. The voice is the most beautiful instrument.


 How did you discover the saxophone?


By chance. I chose the piano. But the sax began as a joke between pals: "You're getting on our nerves with your piano... Can't you play the sax?" "OK!" I accepted the challenge and then I got down to business. I took lessons. And as a good jazz-lover I daydreamed about American jazz musicians. Our heroes at that time were black American sports champions and musicians like Sugar Ray Robinson, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.


When was this exactly?


The middle and late 1940s. In Paris it was the time when Saint-Germain-des-Prés was musically a very exciting place to be. We Africans came from the provinces to Paris just to listen to jazz, Latin American music mambo, samba and the beguine from the Caribbean. Creole music had an important place in France in the 1950s.


 But jazz was your favourite music. What did it bring you?


 A kind of freedom, fresh scope for the imagination. Jazz is the invention of a link between one continent and another even if the story behind it is a terrible one. But the most beautiful flower can grow on a dunghill.


You're thinking of slavery?


Of course. The dunghill is slavery and all its works. The flower is jazz, the fruit of what came from the West, on the one hand, and from Africa on the other. It is the twentieth-century music par excellence. It even introduces you to other kinds of music. Through jazz I discovered all the music that I love, starting with classical music. Jazz is a much more rigorous form of music than is generally thought.


What do you mean by that? Aren't you contradicting what you said about freedom a moment ago?


Not at all. Improvisation is easier if there is a solid framework for it. In jazz you know the theme in advance; it's Gershwin or Duke Ellington. Everyone is supposed to know it. The jazz musician expresses himself within this pre established framework. It's like the subject for an essay at school which you have to structure into a beginning, a middle and an end. A jazz musician will never play the same piece in the same way twice. In classical music, on the other hand, you have to reproduce down to the last note exactly what the composer created. The jazz musician thus has a certain freedom the most wonderful kind because it's the most difficult.


What happened after your encounter with jazz?


When my parents realized that I was neglecting my studies, they stopped my allowance. I had to learn more about musical technique and literature. It was essential. In the cabarets where I worked, for example, I had to provide the accompaniment for a ballet or for a singer. This was invaluable experience and helped to shape my musical personality. I treat music like painting, and I learned to orchestrate and mix sounds and instruments to marry colours together. Gradually I became aware of my identity.


Your Personal, national or cultural identity?


All of them. First of all there were the sounds of independence movements. At the end of the 1950s, after passing my baccalaureate, I left France and went to Brussels where I intended to continue my studies and at the same time earn my living. In 1960 negotiations were being held in Brussels under United Nations auspices about an independence agreement between Belgium and the Congo. In the Porte de Namur district where I lived, I experienced the tensions and clashes between whites and Africans. I discovered the price that history makes people pay. All the same I had the good fortune to be hired as bandleader at the Anges Noirs, a fashionable nightclub run by a Cape Verdean, which was frequented by the leaders of new-born Zaire. For the first time an African band, African Jazz, arrived from Zaire to record in Europe. Its leader, the famous Zairian singer Joseph Kabasélé, spent his nights at the Anges Noirs. At that time all Brussels and all Africa were dancing to Indépendance cha-cha, the record he made when Zaire became independent.


You never left the black music scene?


 Of course I did. The nightclub where I was working belonged to a black man, but not all the entertainers were black. Whites from Europe and America, West Indians and Latin Americans all turned up at the Anges Noirs and met Africans there. I even played Gypsy music there. All this music, of course, was based on rhythm. In addition to the tango and the paso doble, people danced the samba, the cha-cha and the mambo. We also played jazz for dancing. No one kind of music dominated our repertoire.


How did you discover African music in the strict sense of the term?


My meeting with Kabasélé led to a series of lucky breaks. He liked the way I played the sax, and invited me to record Congolese music with him. The records we made together were a tremendous success. In 1961, the first piano recording I made African Jazz had no pianist had a wonderful reception in Zaire, which was the chief market for black music in Africa because of the powerful radio transmitter the Belgians had built there! Everybody in Africa listened to Radio Kinshasa, which broadcast until three o'clock in the morning. While I was in Zaire, I started to compose. Then, in the mid-1960s, I returned to Cameroon. I saw my country with new eyes. The doors of Africa were slowly opening for me.


How did it feel to be back in your native country?


 I returned to Cameroon twelve years after I had left.... I really wanted to rejoin the society from which I had come. But I had lived in another society, with other rules. It's hard to go back to your country after being away for so long.


Do you mean that after your long stay in the West you felt somewhat remote from the society into which you had been born?


Yes, I found an environment that was more restrictive for the individual than that which I knew in Europe. I was no longer very familiar with the rules of that society, but I was still strongly attached to it. A break is inevitable and normal for anyone who has a foot in two cultures. The important thing is not to lose your soul. And to be at one with yourself you need to know who you are.


Was music a way of resolving these contradictions?


 It was one way. It is the most spontaneous, natural form of contact between one person and another. It starts with the voice. The voice in itself is music. You make music as soon as you leave your mother's womb. People have always used sounds to soften or harden human feelings. Music is one of the essential factors of knowledge. Dialogue is first and foremost a form of music. But once you have learned something you have to learn it over again. You have to go beyond the environment in which you have been shaped. That's the kind of curiosity researchers and creators have and I think you find it in all crafts and professions, not just music. Basically it's a universal problem. It's also the problem of the universal.


What do you mean by the universal?


That's a really difficult question. Universal in the singular or the plural? Is there plurality in universality? I don't know. For some, universality is an idea which has emerged from Western civilization alone. Let's say rather that if the people of the West didn't actually invent the idea, they knew better than anyone else how to sell it. It's their talent for marketing.... Others didn't use it in the same way, that's all. Let's accept their formulation of universality as a working definition and ask a few questions. Can anything else be grafted on to it? It's like asking whether a law can be amended. Can the universal be amended? Or, if you prefer, the universal seems to me as an African an attractive garment but one that's a bit tight.


You have been writing music since the 1960s. What public do you write for? For the whole world or rather for Africans?


Neither one nor the other. I try to reach the human being. A tension leading to the universal... Perhaps because of the noble side of music. Because anyone can communicate with anyone else by means of musical vibrations. Since I like people who listen to me, I am ready to listen to people too. I am always ready to get to know other kinds of music. At least I have learned to learn. I am always guided by my curiosity.


What has been the most important factor in your creative work?


This curiosity. My appetite for getting to know others. But what does it mean to say that one creates? I would be more inclined to say that one participates. Sound is a magma. You have to give it a form. It's never the same.


But you always mould the same magma. So you've been doing that for thirty years?


What contribution have I made? I have built a bridge between my starting point and my curiosity. I contribute a sound which is unmistakably African. I add my difference.


But in Africa doesn't your music sound somewhat foreign?


At first people in Africa said that I made Western music, that I was a black-white. I carried that label around for a long time. In France people i often told me that I made American music. And| when I went to the United States, the Americans | thought that I made African music. It's impossible to be more of a traitor than that! A gift has no race. There is a race of musicians and that's all there is to it. To belong to that race you need knowledge. The musician, even more than the composer, hears agreeable sounds around him and digests them. He likes them, they are part of him. The voices of Pavarotti and Barbara Hendricks have taught me to love opera. In my imaginary museum they join Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker. I haven't found anyone better. Mozart doesn't stop me from being African. I like mixtures. In a sense you span several continents. When you're a musician you don't say to yourself when you get up in the morning "I make African music", you say "I want to make music". And that's that.


Isn't choosing instruments a problem?


It's the same for all musicians! When you've learned to play an instrument you become a good, average or excellent instrumentalist. The important thing is to have a sound that sticks in people's minds. Why are Stan Getz, Armstrong or Manu so immediately recognizable? Each has a sound that gets across. , But if you introduce into a given musical culture instruments which are alien to it the piano or saxophone into Arab music for example do you not destroy something in that music? Yes, of course. But you never get ahead without breaking something. When Arab instruments were invented there was, of course, a code. But is that code immutable or can it change? Can you add instruments to a music which existed without them? It's for the musicians to answer that question first. It's the instrumentalist who will say: "Hey, this instrument does nothing for me." Or else, "That one gives me something that I'm going to adapt to the music I play."


How do you get the best out of a new instrument?


Let me give you an example. There is a traditional African instrument that I adore. It's a kind of zanza with wooden tongues. I wanted to include it in my own idiom, but it can only be played in a certain tonality. What could I do? In the piece that I composed, I prepare for it to come in by a modulation. Then I play for a while with the zanza, in its own specific style and mode. The next problem is to phase out the zanza and bring in something else. And so I decided to include the instrument without altering its nature. But you might also want to modify its sound: "Hey, the zanza sounds good, but if I add a bit of cotton here or la matchstick, won't I get a quarter tone more?" it's a personal choice.


You don't see it in terms of cultural references?


The references ought to come naturally. In music there is neither past nor future, only the present. I must compose the music of my time, g not yesterday's music. I have always been accused of "pinching". How can you create if you don't take from that which gives the age its substance? All creators have something of the vampire in them: painting, literature, and journalism function like music. Some musicians are afraid of reaching that universal. But without that perspective what are we here for? What's the point of curiosity, energy, movement, if we live for seventy years tucked away in a corner, bound hand and foot?