Working at my computer, listening to my Fela Kuti station on Pandora, a song stopped me in my tracks. It was Soul Makossa by Lafayette Afro-Rock Band, and the song rang bells loud and clear. The lyric goes “ma ma ko ma ma sa mako makossa” and it has an addictive brass and guitar refrain. So I consulted my Oracles (Google and Wikipedia) and found a fascinating back story on one of the biggest recording hits in history.
Kossa means dance in Cameroon’s Duala language, and makossa (I dance) was a popular style, Soul Makossa was recorded there in 1972 by saxophone player/songwriter Manu Dibango. It was picked up in New York and became the first disco hit, says Wikipedia, with nine or more versions on the Billboard charts at the same time. A decade later Michael Jackson ensured its immortality when he sampled it in Wanna Be Startin Something on “Thriller”. You know – for the last minute or so, the backup singers go “ma ma say ma ma sa ma makossa.” The two songs are compared here . It’s been sampled endlessly over the years.
I remember people playing the Thriller album all over New York City my 1st summer there in 1983, before my last year of law school – in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where I shared an apartment in May and June; in Greenwich Village where I shared an NYU dorm room for the rest of the summer; downtown; uptown; everywhere. And people danced to that music – the new thing was break dancing on the street with a boom box, and mobs crowded Studio 54 and the other discos. Thriller was the summer’s definitive soundtrack. I bought the (vinyl) album at the brand new flagship Tower Records store around the corner from my NYU dorm.
It didn’t bother me at all that I didn’t understand the makossa lyrics. They sounded good, and they made visceral sense as part of the place and time. And I liked the dancing. (I even learned to do a lame moonwalk – I wasn’t very talented.) I was getting into world music at the same time – I still prize some African music records I bought at Tower, and the skeptical looks of my friends when they saw them, and asked what the lyrics meant (I didn’t much care). And so it seems, by continuing to listen to African music three decades later I solved a mystery and came full circle.
And beyond — my public interest intellectual property concerns made me ask whether Jackson or anyone else paid royalties to Dibango? Did Dibango get rewarded for his creation or was Cameroon a victim of piracy in the US? In 1983 I was working at a patent/trademark/copyright law firm, but we never wondered about these issues until the 1990s when intellectual property became part of global politics.
So, the answer: According to Afropop, Jackson never asked Dibango for permission to use Soul Makossa. Dibango sued Jackson in Paris in 1986, and received 1 million francs (~$150,000) in settlement. In 2009 Dibango sued Rihanna in Paris for Don’t Stop the Music, which has heavy sampling of Jackson’s sampling of Soul Makossa, but reportedly she won, based on having received permission from Jackson. Dibango has nonetheless made a long career from his music since the 1950s, becoming head of the Cameroon Music Corporation, and in 2004 being named a UNESCO Artist for Peace. So I guess it’s ok to freely enjoy whichever makossa version you like best. Just don’t forget to dance.