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.
A musical genre born out of Atlantic exchange
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
Finding success between Douala, Paris and New York
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
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," and on Radio France
Internationale for "Canal Tropical." It was also seen on the public
television channel France 3, on the show "Spécial Beaubourg," as
just one example. Makossa integrated the "Sono mondiale" ("world sound")
that Jean-François Bizot yearned for in his columns for the magazine
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
Remakes and Appropriations
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.