Mama-Say What?

Thursday, July 22, 2010 - 09:38 AM

The first-ever disco song, the one that spawned the entire American craze, made its debut in the Top 40 this week in 1973.  Only, back then, it wasn't yet disco.  In fact, it wasn't even American.

The song was "Soul Makossa," and most music historians credit its popularity with disco's inception.  It comes from the afrobeat record of the same name by Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango.

"Soul Makossa" may not instantly ring a bell, but I promise that you've heard it a million times.  The iconic chant "Mama-ko Mama-sa Mama-ko-sa" has been quoted by artists like Michael Jackson, A Tribe Called Quest, and even Rihanna.

The 1970s might have sounded very different had DJ David Mancuso not stumbled upon the track in a Brooklyn music shop in 1973.  Mancuso torched dance floors with every spin of the record, and its popularity in night clubs caused the rare disc to sell out across New York City.  Thus, disco was born.

And it's easy to hear the roots of disco in Dibango's song: dense percussion, thick bass, incessant groove, it's all there.  And as someone who wasn’t alive to enjoy the 1970s firsthand, it totally explains the origins of the genre to me.  Disco always felt like an alien artifact that came out of nowhere - there always seemed to be a break between the more raw rock and soul of the '60s and the lush dance ornamentation of the '70s which time and Gloria Gaynor didn't explain.  Apparently the answer, as with most questions of origin in American pop music, is that we took our cues from Africa.

Last week on Studio 360, Kurt and Alice Echols dissected disco and its impact on American culture - from the modern gay rights movement to Lady Gaga:

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