We say goodbye to another musical hero. Manu Dibango passed away today at his home in France, apparently of complications from Covid-19.
Like many others, I knew Dibango’s music initially through the song “Soul Makossa.” I had heard it on and off over the years, but it was after delving more seriously into the history of 1970s disco in 2010 that I rediscovered the song and its connection to the early disco gatherings of New York including David Mancuso’s Loft parties. It was a B-side of a single that Mancuso found and it became an instant proto-disco hit, and on regular rotation in my own playlist in the early 2010s. It also went on to be a major influence on R&B and funk. It was instantly recognizable with the chat “Soul Makossa”, Dibango’s growling saxophone and catchy horn hook.
Dibango was originally from Cameroon – indeed makossa is a traditional style of Cameroonian music and came up in central Africa’s jazz scene, including African Jazz in Kinshasa, Congo. Over the years he has collaborated with other heroes of ours including Fela Kuti and Herbie Hancock, with whom he recorded the album Electric Africa in the 1980s.
It is jarring to hear of Dibango’s death being so connected to the current crisis, and certainly not the last. His music represents, at least for me, simpler and brighter times, the optimism and nostalgia of the 1970s, and more. RIP.
On Wednesday, I returned home to San Francisco around 9PM and was greeted by the sounds of helicopters overhead. I went outside to the patio and saw a helicopter flying closer to CatSynth HQ and lower to the ground than I had ever seen. We had all seen what had happened across the bay in Oakland the day before, with tragic results. Twitter was alight with concerns and rumors that a raid of #OccupySF was possible, and the official protest feed exhorted followers to “come join us”. So I did.
There was a fairly large crowd when I arrived at Justin Herman Plaza, and a rather festive atmosphere. In the center of the plaza, north of the camp, there was a large circular procession like a picket line. A small brass and drum band was playing a funky riff. Indeed with the bass line, pentatonic scale and four-on-the-floor rhythm it had a bit of an old disco feel! You can hear a bit in this video:
The sound from the iPhone recording was not that great, so the lower brass instruments are a bit soft. But there was a bass line, and the bass line is key to the disco/funk feel (something I suspect most Tea Party rallies lack).
However, underneath the party-like veneer it was a bit tense. The nearby BART station was shutdown (as were the stations in downtown Oakland), and reports were flying over Twitter of various groups of police massing, most notably in the Potrero Hill area where they were seen to be boarding MUNI busses. This led to all sorts of jokes about the fact that if they were riding MUNI they would probably never make it here. But jokes aside, organizers and participants took the threat of a raid quite seriously. We had frequent drills for those who were going to hold the camp (and thus risk arrest), and those who were going to form a more diffuse perimeter. There were advisories on what to do in the event of tear gas being used. It involved vinegar. It did not sound pleasant at all.
Hours went by, alternating between the festive party-like scene, the drills, and an open mic. No sign of any police activity – a fire truck with horns blaring did pull up near the camp, but that was it. Still, conflicting reports and rumors continued to circulate. There was even talk that people from #OccupyOakland who wanted to come across the bay to support us would attempt to cross the Bay Bridge, which is a busy freeway even at night and has no pedestrian sidewalks of any sort. (It was amusing to follow that from the point of view an anthropomorphized @SFBayBridge). This of course did not actually happen, though a small number of people from Oakland were able to come across by using alternate BART stations or other means and did speak to the assembled crowd, including accounts of what had happened on Tuesday and what people in Oakland were doing that evening, and a moving account of what happened to Scott Olsen.
Several political figures from the city were on hand as well, including several members of the Board of Supervisors (our city council equivalent) and a few mayoral candidates. Current Mayer Ed Lee was not present. However, my own Supervisor, Jane Kim, whose district covers my neighborhood as well as the plaza itself was present – I had actually run into her and (almost literally) earlier in the evening but not recognized her at first. At first, the officials started speaking so a small crowd of media people around 2AM, but after a back and forth with protest representatives, they came to speak to us, using the official “mic check” and call-and-response system:
There was one really annoying heckler, even though he seemed to be echoing the immediate and long-term concerns of many in the Occupy Wall Street movement, he was not respecting the mic system, the speakers or the audience, and its not clear to me if we was really an agitator rather than an overly enthusiastic supporter. For example, he was demanding portable bathrooms, even though the city had already provided several that were present and available at the time.
In some ways it was a lonely experience. I did not really have any close friends there. But I did feel connected to a community online on Twitter, with people I know across the bay in Oakland who sent and solicited updates, and with readers beyond who let me know they supported my being there.
I ended up departing around 3AM. It felt like a raid was not likely. And I was happy to see the next morning that it did not happen. It’s not clear if there was a raid in the works that was called off or if it was never really planned. It will also be interesting to see how the movement and the events this week and next week play into local politics (we do have a mayoral election coming up in less than two weeks).
I have been playing around with some of the loop-based sound sets that come with Emulator X2, including the “TwistaMania” bank – mostly just looking for some inspiration for the techno and beat-based sections of the album, but I found I really liked what I was playing. Plus, it's got that really addictive funky disco thing going. You can hear a brief sample here. This could be the kernel of a track for the album, possibly even the first full track after the intro – but it leads to what I am calling my “twista dilema.” Anyone else with Emulator X2 could easily do something similar, and more abstractly a 4/4 techno-dancy thing might sound trite in the context of my work.
UPDATE: since the original post on RPM, I heard an interesting, and quite timely, program on radio open source. Between the discussion in praise of creative appropriation, and my own sense of energy and enthusiasm for the funk disco sound, I think this track will be a part of the album – and it will be titled “Twistadilemma”, probably the second full track.