Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa

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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":


  1. William said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

    I could be wrong, but I think your chronology is reversed — I'm pretty sure it became a hit first after legendary (and eccentric) NY DJ David Mancuso picked it up and started playing it at his infamous loft parties. So I think the connection to disco predates it being played on WBLS.

  2. William said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    ps – While it was definitely a loft / disco classic, I think it might be a stretch to say that this particular song kickstarted NY's underground disco scene.

  3. Alex Case said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    Fascinating, in fact the only interesting fact I have found out about Jacko since his death. Knew both songs but somehow never made the link

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    William: Thanks for the clarification. My impression was that Mancuso's audience was small (though influential), and it was only after WBLS picked up on it that the song attained hit status, spawning the cover versions.

  5. Dan T. said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    I never could figure out what that line meant, but at one point back when that song was first popular I heard it as "I was saved by the sound of Michael's song". (Or, perhaps, "…by the sound of Microsoft"?)

  6. Ethan Hein said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 7:05 pm

    Thanks for an informative post. You and your readers might enjoy a diagram of all the songs that sample "Soul Makossa."

  7. dr pepper said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

    Are you sure it's "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa" all the way through? I think at one point there's an extra syllable before "coo": "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma mo coo sa", and i find that a more complete rhythm.

    It's been a while since i've heard either song so i'll take advantage of the links.

  8. parse said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

    How wonderful is it that Jackson's weird lyrics shadow the etymology of Dibango's title–the OED says makosa is "derivative of kosa 'to peel or remove the skin of (a fruit or vegetable" and Michael sings:

    You're a vegetable, you're a vegetable
    Still they hate you, you're a vegetable
    You're just a buffet, you're a vegetable
    They eat off of you, you're a vegetable

  9. Jens Fiederer said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 12:24 am

    Thank you so much.
    Now please explain "chamone".

  10. misterfricative said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 7:24 am

    Like Dr Pepper, I also thought there was an extra syllable in there, but closer listening reveals it to be just an auditory illusion. I also thought the lyric was 'I'm a sage on the side of the mountain top', which always bugged me because I could never quite reconcile his being simultaneously on the side of the mountain and on top of it.

    As for this suing business, I despair. The phrasings and rhythms are extremely similar, obviously, although even then, the extra/missing syllable means that they're not identical.

    Meanwhile, the differences are substantial:

    Dibango's original scrambling of a traditional lyric has been further nonsensicalized (I wonder if it would make any material difference to Dibango's case if MJ had in fact been singing 'I was saved by the sound of Microsoft'?), the accompanying chord progressions are different (G9 for Dibango; D and E for MJ), and the melodies and intervals are different too (the root note throughout for Dibango; 3rd and 2nd, and then 2nd and root for MJ).

    I mean, credit where credit's due, but this whole note-squatting industry is getting to be ridiculous. How long before Wagner's estate sues Flo Rida (for Right Round being derivative of DOA/Waterman's You Spin Me Round, which was based on Ride of the Valkyries)?

  11. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    Jens @ 12:24 am:

    Michael Jackson's singing voice, on more than one occasion, seemed to turn a word-initial "k" sound into something resembling "ch" or "sh". Not only did "come on" or "c'mon" turn into something like "chamon" or "shamon", but also in Billie Jean, the line "the kid is not my son" sounded something like "the chid is not my son" or even "the chair is not my son".

  12. Terry Collmann said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    Skullturf, I always hear that line as "Virgil is not my son" …

    Obviously he's the son of Lady Mondegreen …

  13. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

    By the way, in the examples I listed, is MJ mirroring a sound change that happened in some world languages? There are several words in French with initial "ch" (chaud, chaudron, charpentier, chanter, cheval, chat, charbon, chandelle) that I assume used to start with a hard "c" at one time (judging from other Romance languages).

  14. Mike said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    I remember reading that Wanna Be Starting Something was originally written during the sessions for Off The Wall, left off of the record, then reworked and included on Thriller. The date of Michael writing it is probably quite a bit earlier than the release date of the single or Thriller might imply.

  15. Simon Cauchi said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    Indeed. They are from the Vulgar Latin caldus, caldarius (hot bath), carpentarius (carriage maker), cantare, caballus (nag), cattus, carbo (carbonem, charcoal), candela (later candella). I get all this from my Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, ed. T. F. Hoad (with, no doubt, great indebtedness to Onions).

    I remember from the paper I did years ago in French "philology" (as we called it), and the lectures I used to hear from A. E. Ewart, that the sound change was called palatisation.

  16. Simon Cauchi said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    I meant to write "palatalization": sorry.

  17. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

    "Dontcha" know how to spell palatalization? Heheh. ;)

  18. Tene said,

    June 28, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    In response to: misterfricative – It is very fortunate, in my opinion, that Manu Dibango is well enough versed in the Western legal system to know to sue Michael Jackson (RIP) AND Rihanna. It is the shameful state of the lack of general culture in the U.S. that lets Rihanna's handlers ask permission of Michael Jackson, instead of Manu Dibango. When you listen to either song, the influence from Dibango's song is crystal clear.
    James Brown also copied another Cameroonian musician, André-Marie Tala, in one of his songs (maybe Brown Sugar, I am not sure anymore); however, Tala did not have Dibango's fame and was unable to succeed in a case against Brown.
    It also appears that "Makossa" does not come from "peeling vegetables" but rather from "Kwasa" (to tear away).

  19. Aaron Davies said,

    June 29, 2009 @ 1:28 am

    i knew it from the bloodhound gang's "mama say".

  20. misterfricative said,

    June 29, 2009 @ 3:21 am

    Tene, I agree that there is a very unattractive element of cultural imperialism in this story. But I can't agree that the 'lack of general culture in the US' is the root cause here. I think the blame must rest squarely and explicitly with Rihanna's legal team, who are paid to make sure that this kind of mistake doesn't happen. It's a particularly inexcusable lapse in light of the previous settlement that Dibango made with MJ.

    Despite what I said before about all the substantial differences, I agree with you that MJ's lyric is clearly influenced by Dibango's. However — and bearing in mind that I am not a lawyer — I think a case could have been made that MJ's borrowing was fair use on the grounds that MJ's version is also quite clearly transformative. But this would have been a very risky argument to go to court with, and presumably that's why an out-of-court settlement was reached in the original case.

    For me though, this is yet another example of where copyright and the whole tangled question of who-'owns'-what start to become seriously counterproductive. Granted that it was legally risky for MJ to leave so many of the original syllables intact, then from a legal (as opposed to a creative) perspective, it would have been better to change the words at least a little more, eg to 'papa say papa say papa do say', and even better to change them quite a lot eg to 'I'm a slave high upon the mountain top'. Massage the imagery as necessary so that the lyric forms a cohesive whole, and then you have a generic rumba(?) with a different lyric, melody, and accompaniment — and Dibango, despite being the original inspiration, is nowhere in sight. The cultural reference and credit have been willfully and effectively obscured, the end product has been deracinated, and what started out as a benign act of cultural continuity and creativity — ie songwriting — has become an exercise in legal weaseling.

    I don't have a solution. Creative Commons may be a step in the right direction. But the way things are going, I don't see how copyright law/practice can survive for very much longer without some major changes.

  21. Manga said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Talla Andre Marie actually won his case against James Brown. See Boston Globe article at:

  22. jackofhearts29 said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

    And amidst all this fascinating (to a musician and layman linguist like me, at least) trivia, I have a question: does the above-mentioned "kwasa" (Cameroonian "to tear away") bear any relation to the genre of Congolese music, "kwassa kwassa"? (Which I believe derives from French creole "quoi ça")

    Or is it just a case of geographic and phonetic similarity with no family relation?

  23. gilad said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 6:41 am
    "Mamase Mamasa Mamakusa "

    and also by an Israeli rapper named Quami de la fox…

    nice post!

  24. ChaotiX66 said,

    July 25, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    Sad to say, but the Dibango clip doesn't work any more.
    I've always wondered where the "ma ma see, ma ma saa" line came from. Great many thanks for the trivia!

    By the way… What MJ song do you like best? I would say…
    The Girl is Mine (duett with Paul McCartney)

  25. soul baby said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 2:08 am

    that manu dibango song is a classic , I remember that from the days of my youth. in the early eighties good hip hop, rock, pop, and r&b all got played on the same platform.

  26. Sean said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

    Michael Jackson gave an interview a long time ago in which he said that the original lyrics were, "I've been saved by the sound of Michael's song." Eventually it was changed to "mama se mama sa mama coo sa" which sounded close enough to what he originally thought of, without seeming.. arrogant (the best word I can think of).

    I think it was a brilliant idea because it finishes off the song with a nice rhythm and dance section, not to mention it has become one of the most recognizable song verses in history.

  27. Alan Kennedy said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

    I remember, at the time the song was a hit, that the common wisdom was that in the final part, some of the background singers were singing the "mama say mama sa…" chant and others were simultanously recorded singing "I was saved by the sound of Michael's song" – with an end result that one can hear both being sung, depending on what one listens for (a slightly Beatles-esque touch).
    I always found this explanation believable.

  28. Catiee said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 10:35 am

    It really sounds like they sing "I was saved by the sound of michael's song" it sounds the way you want it to sound. he's the best man ever lived. Even if i didn't know him it still feels like I had/have a connection with him when i hear his music. It's wierd but I don't have a favorite MJ song because i love them all, really all of them….someone agrey?
    Love C

    Sorry about the spelling i'm swedish :)

  29. Shannon said,

    November 20, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    Catiee, I agree… Can't choose a favorite! But then, they do call me the MJ fan-addict. :-)

  30. mizcamenaija said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

    at jackofhearts29:
    you are right and that is such a cool connection the Wikipedia article below talks about your same connection,

  31. meggamjfan said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

    While I think that Rihanna asking Dibango would not have hurt, I do think she was right in asking Michael Jackson. Unlike Michael, who reworked the motif in his own way to fit the song, Rihanna sampled Michael's song directly and some of his ad libs can be heard faintly in the background. Thus I think it appropriate that she asked him.

    Also, Rihanna wasn't the only artist to sample on of Michael's songs. Kanye West released "Good Life" (or something like that, I'm not familiar with his music) which sampled MJ's "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" around the same time that Rihanna released "Don't Stop The Music". Both these songs sampled a song from MIchael's Thriller album around the same time that Thriller's 25th Anniversary was being celebrated. Thus, I believe that it was done as a tribute to him, making it clearer as to why she would ask MJ for permission.

  32. Mike said,

    December 7, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

    Since the link above to Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa" doesnt work anymore you can watch a nice live version here:

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