Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Leopoldville 1962 - "Le Twist a Leo" by Manu Dibango

Manu Dibango, legendary Cameroonian saxophonist, known for his fusion of rumba, jazz, funk and traditional music, died in Paris on March 24, 2020 of Covid-19.  Before he rose to fame on the African and international music scene in the late 1960s, he tried his hand in Kinshasa with Joseph Kabasele’s (Grand Kalle) African Jazz and then managing a nightclub with his own band.
Dibango's first hit was Soul Makossa in 1972
Born in Douala in 1933, his father arranged for him to go to France for secondary school in 1949.  He graduated in 1956, but did not pass the university entrance exam.  At that point, his father stopped sending him money, so he turned to his avocation for music, moving to Belgium where he ended up at a Brussels club called “Les Anges Noire”.  On the eve of Congo’s independence in 1960 he met Kabasele (composer of Independence Cha Cha) who persuaded him to return to Léopoldville with African Jazz in 1961.
By his own account, Dibango was enthralled with the Congolese capital:

“I dreamed of an Africa that looked like this.  She welcomed me – wealthy, flashy… The air was sensually moist. Money, sex, sorcery, and physical strength combined in this capital, which was creating its own language and building its own history.  At dusk, when candles and gas lamps were lit in the Cité– the black side of town – the crowds would surge, warm and talkative.  In the ngandas, the many open-air bars, women and men sat in front of the cases of beer that surrounded the stage. The great Kabasele and his African Jazz called forth the crowd’s madness – undulating bodies, hot glances, soft eyes, fast talk, and the hips of beautiful dancers held in their skin-tight wrappers.  Pale beers were gulped down between two plates of fish served with plantain or manioc – la dolce vita.” (Dibango, 1994:41)
Blvd. Albert in the late 1950s (author coll.)
He played with African Jazz in the Cité, but also picked up gigs in the former European district of Kalina with a Belgian band, “Juan les Pins”, led by a musician he’d known in Brussels. With Kabasele’s authorization, he played with “Juan les Pins” at the Auberge Petit Pont in September 1961 (Courier d’Afrique, Sep. 30-Oct. 1, 1961:2).  These were fascinating times, as the cold war played out on the streets of Léopoldville, Congolese politicians intrigued with and against each other, Europeans who fled in 1960 were returning (restarting economic outlets) and United Nations personnel with money to spend frequenting the bars and restaurants.
The Petit Pont Restaurant in the late '60s (author coll.)
Friction began to develop between Kabasele and the band, however.  Band members asked questions about his Belgian wife, Coco, and why he didn’t keep mistresses in the Cité.  The young Cameroonian had feet in both cultures and Kabasele picked up on this and suggested Dibango take over his night club on Ave. DeGaulle, the “Afro Negro”.  Ave DeGaulle was located in Kalina, but was a major shopping destination for Congolese, as well. This was a perfect solution for the couple – Coco ran the bar, ordered the food and paid the musicians, while he led the band.  Europeans and UN personnel looking for something different became regular patrons.  The ambiance of the Afro Negro and Léopoldville’s nightlife in this period was captured by Congolese Angolan photographer, Jean Depara (July 12, 2014).
Outside the Afro Negro Club (author coll.)
The Afro Negro Club in 1969 (Revue Noire)
The Afro Negro Club in 1969 (Revue Noire)
Afro Negro - at the bar (author coll.)
When Chubby Checker popularized the Twist on the Dick Clark Show in August, 1960, it wasn’t long before it reached Léopoldville.  Music aficionados were curious, but no records were available on the local market.  In 1962, Dibango composed one of his first recordings, “Twist a Leo” on the African Jazz label.
Link to YouTube
Twist A Leo

Ayé Ayé Ayé Ayé
Ayé Ayé Ayé Ayé
Oui mon corps balance
Dans un temps de twist

Ayé Ayé Ayé Ayé
Ayé Ayé Ayé Ayé
Oh, le Twist fait rage à Léopoldville
De Limete à Kalina
De la Cité á Parc Hembise
On danse le Twist, eh henh, à Léopoldville
De Lipopo à Kalina
De la Cité à la Pergola
On danse le Twist à Léopoldville

Ayé Ayé Ayé Ayé
Ayé Ayé Ayé Ayé
J’ai perdu la tête
En dansant le Twist

De Limete à Kalina, Vie !
De la Cité au Royal
On danse le Twist
On ne se plaignent pas, ça va bien
Oh Oui

Ayé Ayé Ayé Ayé
Ayé Ayé Ayé Ayé

Oui on a perdu la tête, j’ai perdu la tête

(Lyrics transcribed by Mwana Mboka)

The relationship with Kabasele remained problematic.  Dibango met aspiring banker, Dokolo Sanu (who would found the Bank of Kinshasa in 1969) who suggested he start a new club.  Dibango and Coco opened the “Tam Tam”.  By his account, the new venue was a success; down to earth but very popular.  However, in 1962, his parents persuaded him to move back to Cameroon, where he opened another “Tam Tam”.  The new venture in Cameroon closed as civil war engulfed the country and Dibango moved to Europe and super-stardom.

Sources :

Courier d’Afrique, Léopoldville (multiple issues)

Dibango, Manu, 1994. Three Kilos of Coffee : An Autobiography, University of Chicago Press.

Kwaku Akyeampong Michael, Henry Louis Gates and Steven J. Niven, 2012. Dictionary of African Biography, Oxford University Press.

1 comment:

  1. Hi sir, I just wanted to thank you for this blog, which I have been greatly enjoying for over a year. I have some recent videos of Kinshasa that I thought you might enjoy.