By Geoff Wisner
Manu Dibango is a jazz saxophonist with an international reputation. His song “Soul Makossa” is sometimes credited with being the first disco tune.
Dibango was born in Cameroon in 1933. At the age of fifteen he left the country for a boarding school in France. His father gave him a small amount of money and three kilos of coffee to pay for his first school term.
The boy grew up, established himself as a professional musician in Brussels and Paris, then spent many years trying to return to Africa. His memoir Three Kilos of Coffee, written with Danielle Rouard and translated from the French by Beth G. Raps, is largely the story of how hard going home can be.
Some of Dibango’s difficulties can be attributed to the obstacles to getting established in a developing country. In 1975, Dibango was given the opportunity to lead a government-sponsored band in the Ivory Coast. He soon realized that he was completely dependent on the patronage of the president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, and that he was resented by local musicians. With reason or not, he came to believe he might be poisoned.
They can execute you more smoothly than did anyone in Florence: even an autopsy won’t show the African poison hidden under your nails. Now we had to be careful — we had cans of beer or bottles of wine opened right in front of us.
When he left after four years, Dibango said, “My long stay in Côte d’Ivoire turned me into one of those people who has a pain in his Africa.”
Nonetheless, Dibango did not give up the dream of basing himself in Africa. In the fall of 1981 he shipped some musical instruments to Douala, Cameroon, and launched a cabaret. “Our Douala club, with its international aspirations, was a bottomless pit that devoured us. It finally closed its doors after running for six months.”
Dibango blames the bad faith of his financial backers, but he blames magic as well. Balls of “medicine” wrapped in cloth were found under the rug at his club, and about a month later came a more dramatic episode.
Scarcely a month after the incident with the balls came a second and disastrous incident. One dark night after coming home from the club, I went to the toilet to read my newspaper. A moment of lovely quiet passed. The surrounding calm relaxed me. I was getting up off the seat when I saw a green snake, the kind whose bite means death. Unfortunately the telephone still wasn’t connected. The villa was far from the center of town. Was I going to die here, so absurdly? How could I get out of this with just my shoes and pants? But it was decidedly not my time to go. I didn’t delay reacting. I took my first slipper and held it out to the snake so he would bite it and release his venom. Then I could leave. I took off my second slipper. The reptile still had his head up. Slowly I took off my pants and threw them on him. I stepped over him, opened the door carefully, and closed it again. Early in the morning, the houseboy killed the snake. Its venom had already burned the cloth of my pants.
Dibango attributes at least part of his misfortune to disobeying the promises he made as a boy in Cameroon, during the initiation ritual that followed his circumcision at the age of six. During the initiation, he learned that he would be a mouna moussima or “lucky child,” but in addition, “I made promises without knowing their consequences for the future…. There is a particular promise I didn’t keep, so I can speak of it: I was not supposed to return home with a foreign wife. I did. But I paid for it, spiritually and psychologically.”
Dibango did not regret marrying his French wife Coco, but he believed that that decision was more fateful than he could have imagined.
Published Oct 29, 2009 Copyright 2009 Geoff Wisner