Manu Dibango has fitted a lot into his life since 1933. He trained in classical piano before picking up the saxophone and becoming one of the leading jazz musicians of his generation; he has ran night clubs, started one of the first African music magazines, been chosen as a UNESCO "Artist for Peace", and has constantly produced music exploring funk, jazz, beat, soul and rumba. He even found time to file legal action against Michael Jackson and Rihanna, who both appropriated a chant from his best-known song Soul Makossa into their recordings without his permission. Aside from that song, released in 1972 and cited as one of the first disco records, he has released over 40 albums in as many years and it is from this vast repertoire that he picked just a few pieces to play in celebration of his 80th birthday.
It took over five minutes of his eight-piece band playing a mellow and layered introduction to the first song, Miano Ma Tumba, before Dibango came on stage and released three big notes from his saxophone to signal the end of the track and the beginning of the birthday celebration. The saxophone is the instrument he is most known for, though he has put his hand to various other musical tools over the years, not least the vibraphone, which is what he moved onto for the next track. The Barbican has perfect acoustics for this music – the reverberating high-pitched strikes of the aluminium bars sitting over the looping bass from Raymond Doumbe's guitar. It's a lovely rhythm and balance, it's just that it went on and on without much variation for about five minutes more than it needed to.
This became a bit of a recurring problem throughout the concert. It was clear that the audience, while appreciative of the smoother and slower elements of the music, were more responsive to the funkier and dancier constructions. But just when a the band produced music which had more rhythm and was beginning to go up a level a slower number was introduced which took it flat back down to the bottom again.
In fact, the whole night only really got going half way through the performance, when Courtney Pine joined the band on stage for a rendition of Big Blow. Dibango's group already had a second saxophonist, Jonathan Handelsman, in its ranks – so when Pine joined in the fun a riotous deluge of punched notes filled the air. The audience responded and so did Dibango who set in motion a duel with Pine, throwing discordant variations of Pine's phrases back at him with energy, a beautiful bout by masterful performers. Then, as before, the following track, Oh! Koh!, sucked all the hard-earned energy back out of the space and the rock and roll mountains formed suddenly softened to a smooth valley of more pastoral nature.
I couldn't help thinking that maybe the Barbican wasn't the best place for this gig. It wasn't sold out, and while the sound fills the cavernous space wonderfully, the ordered seating and polite atmosphere – Dibango had to instruct the audience to stand, dance and respond to the music – only encouraged a passivity in the audience which was reflected on stage. To have seen these musicians in a more claustrophobic and compact space would, I am sure, have produced a hugely different show.
The intensity of Big Blow wasn't reached again, but the half of the concert following it was markedly more energised. The penultimate track, Manga Bolo, gradually decrescendoed as the musicians left the stage to leave just the percussive department – Jaques Conti-Bilong on drum kit and Guy Nwogang on conga drums and other percussion, both of who lent a brilliant sense of pulse throughout. Then that intensity picked up for the return to the stage of Dibango et al and the final number – Soul Makossa. Over 40 years since its release and instant integration into numerous musical genres, it still sounds funky and exciting. And finally the crowd stand up to dance (of their own accord) and it really feels more like a party, a rousing way to end.
I haven't yet made arrangements for my 80th birthday party, and no doubt that however much life I still have in my tank at that age I'll be more likely spending a sedate drink with friends and family rather than as Dibango spent his. So how can I judge? He's a legendary musician who chose to share his party with us all, and when it hit the top notes it was as good as any I've been invited to.