The Makossa diaspora

The first time I heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was courtesy of Motorcycle Guy, a prominent Brooklyn eccentric who drives around on a tricked-out motorcycle bedecked with lights and equipped with a powerful sound system. I encounter him every so often and he’s always bumping some good funk, soul or R&B. One night, he was playing what I thought was an extreme remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, with the end chant slowed down and pitch-shifted radically. As it turns out, I got the chronology reversed. Here’s Manu Dibango’s song:

Manu Dibango released “Soul Makossa” in 1972. He wrote it as the B-side to “Mouvement Ewondo,” a praise song for the Cameroonian football team on the occasion of the 1972 Tropics Cup. Language Log explains the chant-like lyrics:

The story behind these seemingly nonsensical syllables is a fascinating one, originating in the Cameroonian language Duala.

Duala is spoken in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, which has long been a musical hotbed. Since the 1960s, Cameroonian pop music has been dominated by a rhythmic style of dance music from Douala known as makossa. The Duala word makossa is often glossed as “(I) dance” (as in this article by Cameroonian linguist George Echu). The entry for makossa in the Oxford English Dictionary further explains that makossa is “derivative of kosa ‘to peel or remove the skin of (a fruit or vegetable)’; the name refers to the twisting and shaking movements of the dancer.”

Language Log quotes this excerpt of Dibango’s autobiography, Three Kilos of Coffee:

On one side of the 45 I recorded the hymn [praise song]; on the other I recorded “Soul Makossa,” written using a traditional makossa rhythm with a little soul thrown in. In my Douala neighborhood, at my parents’ house, I rehearsed this second piece. The house had no air-conditioning, and the windows were wide open. All the kids flocked around. Hearing me rehearse, they fell over laughing. Unbelievable — how on earth had I concocted that mishmash? Poor makossa really took a blow. My father was astonished: “Can’t you pronounce ‘makossa’ like everyone else? You stutter: ‘mamako mamasa.’ You think they’re going to accept that in Yaoundé?” The Cup organizing committee reacted the same way. The march on side one they found “impeccable.” But the other side… “Really, Manu has gone nuts. What possesses him to stutter like that?”

The New York DJ and party promoter David Mancuso got his hands on “Soul Makossa” and played it incessantly at his loft parties. The song became an underground hit, especially when it started getting airplay on WBLS. The few copies floating around New York were quickly snapped up by other DJs. Several bands rushed out their own covers to fill the gap, most notably Baba Olatunji and the Lafayette Afro-Rock Band. Their versions are fun, but nowhere near as funky as the original. Finally, Atlantic Records released Manu Dibango’s version on one of their sub-labels, and it went so far as to crack the top 40 in 1973.

Soul Makossa quotes, samples and remixes

Quoting “Soul Makossa” became something of a trope in the early eighties, ranging from subtle references to the beat or bassline or horn line to full-blown quotation. My favorite example is by Nairobi featuring the Awesome Foursome.

This song just screams 1982, especially with those 808 cowbells. This song was itself sampled in many other songs, including Schoolly D’s “Mama Feel Good.”

Kool Moe Dee’s “Pump Your Fist” draws on “Soul Makossa” for percussion, the wah guitar stab and part of the main sax riff.

A more recent example: “Latinhead” by Dirty Beatniks.

Soul Makossa has also been sampled by Jay-Z, Geto Boys, Poor Righteous Teachers and A Tribe Called Quest, among many others. See a full list of samples.

Michael Jackson and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”

By far the most famous musical descendant of “Soul Makossa” is Michael Jackson’s first single from Thriller, the best song on that album and a strong contender for the best song of the eighties, period.

I was at a hippie-ish wedding this past summer. People were having a good time, but not really dancing. Then “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” came up on the iPod and the party suddenly jumped off. Little kids, old folks, everyone in between, people were getting down. Say what you want about Michael Jackson as a human being, but there’s no denying the power of this song. It never fails to get people shaking their butts, across all ages, races, classes and cultural backgrounds.

The copyright-minded among you might well ask: did MJ steal the Makossa chant? Manu Dibango certainly thought so, and sued MJ, eventually reaching an out-of-court settlement. The issue isn’t a cut-and-dried one for me, though. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the two chants:

MJ vs Manu

The most obvious difference is in the syllables, but there are musical differences too. Manu Dibango’s chant is a two-bar phrase sung/chanted entirely on the note G, over an unchanging G7 chord. Michael Jackson’s chant is a four-bar phrase with a call and response structure. He adds a two-note melody harmonized in thirds and a chord progression alternating between D/E and E7. MJ also uses a little more syncopation. I’d say that MJ’s chant is more of an adaptation than a direct theft.

“Wanna Be Startin’ Something” quotes, samples and remixes

Pop and hip-hop musicians quote MJ’s version of the Makossa chant incessantly. Some high-profile examples:

People love to shout out the chant during live performances, too, everyone from Zap Mama to Jamie Foxx. Rihanna goes further than quoting MJ’s chant; she builds an entire dance track around a reharmonized sample of it. MJ’s song is in the key of E, but Rihanna’s producers put it in the key of F# minor. This is hip stuff; the same notes in MJ’s sunny and uplifting coda become melancholy in Rihanna’s track.


People quote other parts of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” too. Big Daddy Kane quotes the “Yeah yeah” part in “Warm It Up Kane,” listen at 1:32.

Other tracks quoting this phrase include “Vibin’ (The New Flava Remix)” by Boyz II Men and Busta Rhymes featuring Treach, Craig Mack and Method Man, and “Feels So Good” by Mase.

Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz adapt big swaths of MJ’s song in “Startin’ Something.”

Björk has to be different, of course, so she (mis)quotes the opening line of MJ’s song in live versions of “I Go Humble.” And by the way, her MJ fandom was apparently reciprocal, if this radio show transcript is to be believed.

Visualizing the Makossa diaspora

Here’s a complete map of the genealogy of the Makossa chant; click to enlarge.

"Soul Makossa" sample map

Putting it all together

I made a mashup combining several of the tracks mentioned above so you can get your makossa on, enjoy:

Any noteworthy sightings of the Makossa meme that I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Hat tip to Mike Devlin for coining the phrase “Makossa diaspora.”

6 thoughts on “The Makossa diaspora

  1. Thanks very much for this excellent analysis. I teach a history of pop music at a university and I’m adapting some of your work for my discussion of “Soul Makossa” in my class on disco this week.

  2. One quick correction: “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was the fourth single released from Thriller, following “The Girl Is Mine,” “Billie Jean,” and “Beat It.”

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