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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Mother of Disco

"Ma-mako, ma-ma-sa, mamako-kossa." Thus spake Manu Dibango on the famous refrain of "Soul Makossa," a song many have chronicled as the dawn of disco music. The 1972 single by Cameroonian saxophonist Dibango became an international sensation with an exotic, make-you-wanna-dance sound perhaps unlike anything popularly heard before in the West. Released by Atlantic records, the song was put into heavy rotation by radio dj Frankie Crocker at New York's WBLS, and soon hit the au-go-go clubs around the world, filling floors.

"Soul Makossa" peaked at #35 on the Billboard pop chart and went to #21 on the magazine's R&B chart. (There was no Dance/Club chart at that time.) At a then-unheard-of 4:30 minutes, in the days before the extended mix was created by Tom Moulton, the 45 rpm was perfect for djs and dance floors (to prepare the next record for the evening's mix and to surrender to the music, respectively).

The refrain was also featured prominently, ten years later, in Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'."

"Soul Makossa" may be the proto-disco song because it set off a movement towards music geared specifically for a club crowd; '70s disco evolved from it. However, I would like to lay claim that the disco sound may have originated not in 1977, but in 1967, with another Afrikan artist: Miss Miriam Makeba.

Perhaps it is a little bit bold of me, but I believe the disco sound, diva and all, is rooted in Makeba's "Pata Pata." The song was written by Dorothy Masuka (also South African), and first released by Makeba in 1957 when she still lived in Africa. The song was then released in the United States and Europe in 1967 for her studio album of the same name, complete with added English words. It was very successful on the Billboard Hot 100 at that time, peaking at #12. This is an early moment when the "girl-group" sound started evolving in a specifically dance-floor direction.

"Pata Pata" is considered by many to be Makeba's signature hit and the song's title means "Touch Touch" in English, by the way. I would add that there are two reasons why Manu Dibango is credited as the forefather of disco and Miriam Makeba is not: first, Dibango immediately sparked a musical genre in the early '70s. Secondly, sexism is an issue very much at play here, in my humble opinion.

Still, give a thought to occasionally putting "Pata Pata" in your mix early in the night as a warm-up; I think it works well. Give it a listen, just below. Maybe your crowd will want to touch touch, eh? In any event, let's all give thanks to Africa for the prototypical dance floor sound.

By the way, German house music producers, Milk & Sugar, did a remix of the song, named "Hi-A Ma (Pata Pata)" but I wasn't crazy about their approach, finding it repetitious and dumbed down. A great remix still deserves to be made with strengthened percussion and fuller sound.

For now, I leave you with "Mama Afrika" (Miriam's official nickname) and The Mother of Disco's original.


  1. Truly fascinating reveal . . . thank you!

  2. Wow! You may be on to a whole new theory on the origins of disco. Also, I thought Miriam's costumes & head-dresses must have inspired the group Labelle ("Lady Marmalade")

  3. Clearly the appeal of a Saturday night shakedown was/is universal. The hi-life rhythms behind this drove a lot of great African dance music from the 50s on. The piano breaks sound kinda like Frankie Knuckles, no? Great stuff. By the way, check out James Blood Ulmer's 1980 version of Jazz Is The Teacher Funk Is The Preacher to hear the sound of super-stretched African jazz-funk disco. Sort of.

  4. Thanks for weighing in on this, Johnny. I loved getting your input on this. Frankie Knuckles piano breaks: OMG! Right!