Manu Dibango – Wakafrika (1994)

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Manu Dibango has a perfectly balanced feel for both the lithe American jazz form but also the murkier pleasures of traditional African music.

What’s almost criminal is that he couldn’t elicit a second glance on your average U.S. sidewalk. That, despite the fact that Dibango, 60 at the time of this recording, scored his first international hit in 1972, the million-selling “Soul Makossa.”

“Wakafrika” kicked off, perhaps appropriately, with a nifty reworking of that cut, featuring the cryingly rapturous voice of Senegalise star Youssou N’Dour — who many remember for his earlier turn on Peter Gabriel’s single “In Your Eyes.”

Following that (what do you know?) is a this bouncy update of Gabriel’s “Biko” — a tune that features the former Genesis frontman as well as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, after earlier work on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” LP.

There were new joys here: Where the original version of “Biko,” dedicated to a slain anti-apartheid activist, once held such elegiac sorrow, Dibango reimagined it with an upbeat fortitude. Add the familiar echo of Gabriel’s voice, then the breezy trills of Ladysmith, and you had, really, a more perfect track. (The video is embedded below.)

Layered drum and bass signatures, coupled with a deft appreciation for both pop and jazz, Dibango’s “Wakafrika” — in keeping with a style of music that he dubbed “afro-soul jazz” — has shown a remarkable resilience where other “world music” releases of the time have wilted into nostalgia.

The title tune featured the coiled bass of a dance track, the honky sax of a Blue Note side, and the lightest of guitar licks. “Wakafrika,” the tune, made clear the intentions of “Wakafrika,” the album: Dibango’s effort would be consistently marked by elliptical beats, resilient horn blasts and heartening choruses.

Also of particular note was a redo of “Homeless,” which on “Graceland” featured Ladysmith’s unaccompanied vocals. Here, it became a kind of caberet groove number. Sinead O’Connor emerged as a fervent, even funky, backup singer. And Dibango pleasantly hiccuped his way through, displaying the best of his quivering, even longing saxophone sound.

It is simply a delight — though never, of course, all that simple at all.


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