WORLD MUSIC RIFFS / Saxophone appeal: Courtney Pine on the Afro-disco of Manu Dibango's 'Big Blow'

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The Independent Culture
I FIRST met Manu Dibango in the dressing room at a show we both did in Portugal in about 1982. I was a real student at that time - of the saxophone, that is - but I was the only one in my band who'd heard of him. I went backstage and there he was, this tall black bloke with a shaved head wearing sunglasses, like some character out of Shaft. There were four black saxophones on the floor, and he just smiled and handed me one. His wife asked me to play, but I was way too nervous.

'Big Blow' is a funky disco African track; it really reminds me of the 100 Club and Crackers, where we used to hear it at the time of the British jazz- funk and soul explosion.

It's a five-minute instrumental with all the stuff for a Western dance track - drums, bass, keyboards - plus lots of African percussion such as congas and talking drums. It was one of the first 'world music' tracks to make it as a club hit in the West. There's a lot of chanting over it - these Senegalese words like 'makossa' and stuff which you don't understand unless you look it up - they're really just like an effect in a club.

It starts with Manu playing this incredibly difficult riff on his tenor sax. It's a descending chromatic pattern, a line you could play quite easily on a piano but on a sax it's murder. It took me years of practice to get it. The saxophone isn't built perfectly, it's actually out of tune and you can spend the rest of your life trying to play it in tune, making all the adjustments with your lips and tongue.

This particular line is hard because it goes across the breaks. To go from one note to where an octave starts again (eight notes higher) you actually have to press a button on the back with your thumb. But only when going up. And then there's all the left- and right-hand co-ordination you need. To play an A you need the first and second fingers of your left hand, and when you get to F you've got all your left hand down plus the first finger of your right hand. You can see how you can end up all fingers and thumbs and just give up.

As well as that he sings in unison with the sax, the same notes with his voice, over-dubbed in the studio. After that it gets into a serious Afro groove, and he does this talking thing all the way through, alternating with little sax breaks, using both tenor and alto instruments - there are about four different layers of it altogether.

He plays a hard-edged style, which I wasn't used to after growing up on LA session men. It's raw, because he doesn't care about the tuning, he just wants to play. Africans have different musical intervals from the West. I've heard them singing in a C major scale, but when they get to the seventh note they sing it flattened, so they sing B flat while the band plays B. It makes people like Salif Keita and Youssou N'Dour sound out of tune to Western ears, but they're not really, it's not like they can't do it.

Here he's improvising, and the feeling of what he's doing is to encourage people to dance. All the way through it's a dialogue between the instrument and his voice, which is one of the lowest I've ever heard. Low and grey and granite-like, he fills up the whole track with his talking.

'Big Blow' is on the b-side of Manu Dibango's 'Soul Makossa' single (London LONX19), or as 'Makossa 87 (Big Blow)' on his Afrijazzy CD (Urban CD831720-2)

(Photograph omitted)

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