Between the 18th and the 21st centuries, the musical transatlantic space has profoundly changed,...
The word "makossa" means "contortion" or "sway." When the "ma" is removed, the term "kossa" is often used by singers to encourage dancers to shake more and musicians to play harder. Makossa is both an urban music, and a dance born in the city of Douala, Cameroon in the 1950s. Its pioneers sought their inspiration in 1970s French pop, Ghanaian highlife music, Congolese rumba, beguine from the Antilles, Dominican merengue, and Latin-American rhythms. Cameroon's Atlantic coastline allowed for increased musical hybridizations and, in tandem with higher rates of migration in the Cameroonian population, positioned Makossa in the commercial networks dominated by two primary hubs (France and the United States), and secondary hubs that emerged in the rest of Europe, the Americas, and Africa.
In the 1950s, in Douala, one could listen to mambo by the Matamoros Trio and beguine by Sam Castandet on Afro-Cuban records, edited by the British company EMI under the label GV. At the same time, French songs by Tino Rossi, Eddy Mitchell and Sacha Distel could be heard on Radio-Douala. On Voice of America (VOA) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), jazz and, later, funk and soul delighted local musicians. The program that made the greatest impression was that of Georges Collinet, Maxi voum voum, on the air at VOA from 1960 to 1990. Makossa is the result of these cultural transfers, made possible by the introduction of radio to Douala between the two world wars, the importation of records and new instruments brought in by the coastmen and soldiers passing through, or sold by Greek, Portuguese and Lebanese merchants. Also called "popos", these former were men coming from the west coast of Africa who were office staff during the colonial period. Within the coastmen, there were people of diverse origin (Nigeria, Cameroon, Mauritania, Senegal, Ivory Coast) who, using the Atlantic Ocean as their throughway, settled in countries on the African coasts and facilitated the spread of varied music and dance styles.
Emmanuel Nelle Eyoum is considered to be the father of Makossa. It is he who, for the first time, used the word during a benefit at the Flambeau Bar, in Douala, in his song Mot'a Ogono mo asi ma nanga ndabo. Starting in 1958, the style was popularized in the other cities of the country by the group Négro Styl. Makossa saw its first success on the continental level with the musician Eboa Lotin, who represented Cameroon at the Panafrican Festival in Algiers in July 1969. The genre then grew and diversified in the 1970s and 80s, becoming Makossa New Wave, Makossa Pop, Makossa Funk, Makossa Soul, etc., according to the inspiration of the songwriter.
With artists like Jo Tongo and Charles Lembe, Cameroonian music was already quite present in Paris in the 1970s, especially in the northern part of the French capital, in the 18th arrondissement and in the Seine-Saint-Denis department, where immigrant populations are concentrated. According to the Ministry of the Interior in 1976, out of 80,000 Sub-Saharan Africans in France, 30,000 were residents of Paris, and 11,000 of Seine-Saint-Denis. But Makossa had a difficult time breaking into the major labels. In France, Pathé, Atlantic or Philips rarely took chances on musicians; so it was with Dikoto Madengue, Ashanta Tokoto and Manu Dibango. The main source of diffusion for African music was what the journalist Achille Ngoye calls a "parallel economy" embedded in independent record labels such as Sonodisc and Safari Ambiance.
It is not until 1973, and the impressive success of Soul Makossa in the United States, that the musical genre made its mark in Western markets. The piece by Manu Dibango, recorded in France and launched by Decca in 1972, initially had limited success; neither the public nor the French music industry paid much attention to it. It caught on when David Mancuso discovered Manu Dibango's record in a West Indian shop on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn and made it a hit in his private club, the Loft. American DJs quickly picked up the song, especially the well-known Frankie "Hollywood" Crocker, who played it on African-American radio station WBLS. Soul Makossa won over black, white, and Latino listeners, and became an important ingredient in the development of disco.
This vibrant scene incited Ahmet Ertegun, the director of Atlantic Records, to distribute the record in the United States. At his invitation, Manu Dibango undertook a 24-concert tour at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, in the company of the Temptations, and appeared at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. with the group Osibisa, and at Yankee Stadium with the Fania All Stars in front of 50,000 spectators. In August 1973, Soul Makossa cracked the Billboard Top 100 in sales and radio play, and stayed there for 9 consecutive weeks, peaking at number 21 and accumulating 2 million sales by the end of the year. On his return to France, Manu Dibango was invited for the first time to play as a headliner at L'Olympia de Paris from the 14th to the 17th of May 1977.
If the United States is the place where Makossa made it big, France remained a major hub of production and distribution of this musical style. In the 1980s, the Left then in power authorized the creation of private radio stations, permitting the musical genre to break away from the African ethnic audience to which it had been effectively confined.
The journalist Jean-François Bizot, a counter-culture figure, contributed, along with critic and producer Philippe Conrath, to the promotion of Makossa in French media. Makossa was played on the radio: on France Inter, for the show "Pollen,"1 and on Radio France Internationale for "Canal Tropical."2 It was also seen on the public television channel France 3, on the show "Spécial Beaubourg,"3 as just one example. Makossa integrated the "Sono mondiale" ("world sound") that Jean-François Bizot yearned for in his columns for the magazine Actuel.4
Starting in the 1980s, on the other side of the English Channel, the development of world music by stars like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel mixed African sounds with pop music, and resulted in the creation of new independent labels such as Real World, thus opening new markets to Makossa.
Since the 1970s, Makossa has been the object of various and complex reappropriations in the Atlantic world. Some titles were adapted, without authorization, by North American and European singers. James Brown thus discovered Hot Koki by the Cameroonian musician André Marie Tala when he visited Kinshasa in 1974 to participate in the giant concert for the opening of the fight between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman. The song, played on Zairean radio, captured James Brown's attention, and he remade it as The Hustle in 1975. The same story was repeated with Soul makossa by Manu Dibango who, in 1982, saw his refrain sampled by Michael Jackson in Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' on the album Thriller. The legal disputes surrounding the affair have added to the song's renown and its success endures; in 2007, the singer Rihanna integrated part of the chorus into her song entitled Please, don't stop the music.
A whole Makossa song was once remade and sung in another language; Demis Roussos remade the song Elongi by Ekambi Brillant under the title Kyrila. Two versions followed: one in English and the other in German. More recently, on the occasion of 2010's football World Cup, Shakira drew her inspiration from the song Zangalewa by the group Golden Sounds, for the chorus of her hit Waka Waka.
The success of Makossa in the West has not been without consequence on the author-composers of this musical style living in Cameroon. Makossa in the first decade of the 21st century took on a form thought to be more commercial by integrating more technology and increasing its reliance on sound processing. The Douala language, which had until then held a near monopoly in the songs, gave way to more international languages such as English and French. This is a new page in the book that is still being written about this musical genre.
Music program created in 1984 and hosted by Jean-Louis Foulquier from Parisian concert venues and broadcast on France Inter. It is produced by Radio France and available on INAthèque, in the INA-Radio France collection.
Music program hosted by Gilles Obringer beginning on September 28, 1981, produced and broadcast by Radio France Internationale. Available on INAthèque, Radio France Internationale collection.
Program about immigration from the May 29, 1977, recorded at the Centre Pompidou at Beaubourg by Jean-Michel Dhermay. Available at INAthèque, Mosaïque collection.
The archives of the magazine Actuel are available to consult at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, site François Mitterrand, starting with the first edition in October 1968 (call number 4-JO-22034).