Ever since Michael Jackson's unexpected death yesterday, his music has been omnipresent. The iTunes sales charts are overwhelmed by Michael Jackson songs: as of this afternoon, New York Magazine's Vulture blog reports, Jackson appears on 41 songs in the iTunes Top 100 singles chart. One of the top songs is "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," the infectious opening song from the 1982 album Thriller. The lyrics can be a bit befuddling ("You're a vegetable, you're a vegetable…"), but there's no denying the song's catchiness, especially the chant at the end: "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa." The story behind these seemingly nonsensical syllables is a fascinating one, originating in the Cameroonian language Duala.
Duala is spoken in Douala, Cameroon's largest city, which has long been a musical hotbed. Since the 1960s, Cameroonian pop music has been dominated by a rhythmic style of dance music from Douala known as makossa. The Duala word makossa is often glossed as "(I) dance" (as in this article by Cameroonian linguist George Echu). The entry for makossa in the Oxford English Dictionary further explains that makossa is "derivative of kosa 'to peel or remove the skin of (a fruit or vegetable)'; the name refers to the twisting and shaking movements of the dancer."
Makossa hit the big time in 1973, when Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa" became an international hit. The song's origins were hardly auspicious: Dibango originally wrote the song as the B-side to "Mouvement Ewondo," a praise song or "hymn" for the Cameroonian football team on the occasion of the 1972 Tropics Cup, held in Cameroon's capital Yaoundé. Here is how Dibango describes coming up with the song in his autobiography, Three Kilos of Coffee:
On one side of the 45 I recorded the hymn; on the other I recorded "Soul Makossa," written using a traditional makossa rhythm with a little soul thrown in. In my Douala neighborhood, at my parents' house, I rehearsed this second piece. The house had no air-conditioning, and the windows were wide open. All the kids flocked around. Hearing me rehearse, they fell over laughing. Unbelievable — how on earth had I concocted that mishmash? Poor makossa really took a blow. My father was astonished: "Can't you pronounce 'makossa' like everyone else? You stutter: 'mamako mamasa.' You think they're going to accept that in Yaoundé?" The Cup organizing committee reacted the same way. The march on side one they found "impeccable." But the other side… "Really, Manu has gone nuts. What possesses him to stutter like that?"
"Mouvement Ewondo" was a flop, but "Soul Makossa" found its way to New York, where it turned into an underground hit. After heavy rotation on New York's popular black radio station WBLS, the obscure Cameroonian single became a hot commodity. Since the original single was so hard to find, numerous cover versions filled the void (such as this one from the Lafayette Afro Rock Band). The acts covering Dibango's song all imitated his stuttering syllables that playfully mangled the word makossa.
The song is credited with helping to kickstart New York's nascent disco scene, and both the original and the countless cover versions traveled far and wide. It clearly had an effect on young Michael Jackson as he was writing the songs for Thriller, since the breakdown at the end of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" incorporates a variation of Dibango's refrain, deleting a syllable and altering two others:
Dibango: ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa
Jackson: ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma ku sa
Jackson apparently claimed his version was Swahili, but he eventually acknowledged his debt to Dibango and worked out a compensation arrangement in an out-of-court settlement. In 2007, when R&B singer Rihanna released the song "Don't Stop The Music" sampling the line from "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," Rihanna got Jackson's permission but not Dibango's. In response, Dibango sued both Rihanna and Jackson earlier this year, seeking 500,000 euros in damages.
I'll leave you with "Soul Makossa," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin," and "Don't Stop The Music":