In memory of the outstanding Camerounian composer and saxophonist Manu Dibango, who died 24 March 2020 aged 86 following treatment for COVID-19, here’s a December 1985 Jazz Journal review of some albums from one of his most creative periods, including Electric Africa, with its characteristic Herbie Hancock solo on the title track (12:00 into the YouTube video below). The photo here is by Brian O’Connor from Brecon jazz festival 2009.
Manu Dibango: Electric Africa / Mandingo: Watto Sitta / Deadline: Down By Law – These three records are lumped together because they share not only personnel, but many stylistic elements. It’s no coincidence that they all emanate from the same record company. Celluloid, which specialises in recording music that fuses American high tech and jazz with African styles.
Of the three, Manu Dibango’s Electric Africa is the most immediately striking. It features some excellent and imaginative synthesiser programming, several incidences of the distinctive makossa rhythm, some fine vocal arrangements and a superb acoustic piano solo by Herbie Hancock, which in this context is more stunning than it might be in a standard VSOP setting. It’s not an album of solos — more of those can be found on the Deadline record – but it introduces a new fusion of styles which ought to have a good mileage in dance and jazz circles. Dibango is not a virtuoso saxophonist, but his talent lies in composition and arrangement.
Mandingo’s Watto Sitta uses similar rhythms, though moving closer to straight rock rhythms, and is in many ways a fine companion to Electric Africa. It differs in featuring heavily a number of African stringed instruments in accompaniment. It also has guest appearances by Herbie Hancock.
Modern jazzers will find most to identify with on the Bill Laswell led Deadline album, which includes appearances by Phillip Wilson, Olu Dara, Jaco Pastorius and Jonas Hellborg. It also makes forays into more introspective territory and investigates a number of different textures and effects.
Manu Dibango: Electric Africa
Pata Piya; Electric Africa (17.33) — Echoes Beti; L’Arbre A Palabres (18.20)
Dibango (s/v); plus various personnel including Bernie Worrell, Wally Badarou, Bill Laswell and Herbie Hancock (kyb/syn). Recorded in Paris, c 1985. (Celluloid CELL 6114)
Mandingo: Watto Sitta
Harima; Muso; Natural Dancer (18.35) — Kansala; Dewgal; Don’t Worry (17.36)
Foday Musa Suso (v/African inst) and others, including Herbie Hancock. Recorded NYC and Evanston, Illinois, c 1984. (Celluloid CELL 6103)
Deadline: Down By Law
Afro Beat; Boat Peoples; Baliphone Dub (17.48) — Makossa Rock; Gammatron; Doo Root (19.59)
Various personnel including: Manu Dibango (ts/v); Bernie Worrell (syn); Phillip Wilson (pc/ syn); Bill Laswell (b/syn); Jonas Hellborg, Jaco Pastorius (b); Olu Dara (c/t), Paul Butterfield (h). Recorded NYC, c 1985. (Celluloid CELL 6111)