Rihanna released Don’t Stop The Music in 2007. Careful listeners will recognize the track being sampled on the song from an earlier release by Michael Jackson. But where does the phrase “mama say mama sa mama coosa” come from and what on earth does it mean?
“Don’t Stop The Music”
Rihanna’s 2007 song Don’t Stop The Music is a basic club dance hit. The track is all about going to the club and meeting someone new on the dance floor. That all seems pretty standard for a pop hit from the mid-2000s, but the interest in the lyrics comes from the unique song that is sampled on the track—which just happens to be the King of Pop’s 1982 hit, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.
But the story doesn’t just go back to Jackson. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin sampled the song, Soul Makossa. The track was recorded in 1972 by Manu Dibango, a saxophonist from Cameroon.
Where Does The Phrase Come From?
Dibango’s Afro-funk saxophone track became known for its distinctive chorus: “Mama ko, mama sa, mako makossa.”
Jackson’s sampling further popularized the phrase. His version, however, changed the lyrics slightly, to “ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa.” It isn’t entirely clear why he made this change, but it may have simply been related to the unique vocalizations that he often used in his music.
Dibango’s original album lyrics were composed in Duala or Douala, a regional dialect—or more appropriately, a group of dialects—spoken in Cameroon.
In 2009, Dibango sued both Jackson and Rihanna for sampling his song in their own tracks. His reasoning was that, while the Barbadian singer had contacted Jackson for permission to sample Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin, neither of the pop stars had asked Dibango for his blessing.
The King of Pop had contacted the Cameroonian singer in the 1980s when he originally wanted to sample Soul Makossa. But Dibango said he hadn’t been involved in any agreement with Rihanna.
The lawsuit was dismissed. A year earlier, Dibango had applied for his right to have his name listed on her materials of the song—which had been granted. The courts ruled that, in adding his name to track listings, he was implicitly giving permission for his song to be sampled.
So, What Does “Mama Say Mama Sa Mama Coosa” Mean?
With the popularity of the song and the phrase, it isn’t surprising that so many people have asked what on earth “mama say mama sa mama coosa” actually means. Unfortunately, the answer is a bit underwhelming. The truth is that… we don’t really know.
The leading theory seems to be that the last part of the phrase, “ma coosa” comes from “makossa,” which is similar to the Duala word for “dance.” The word also refers to a specific music genre that Dibango himself played.
Makossa music was popular in Cameroon in the 1970s and 1980s but had its earliest roots going back to the 1950s. It drew on elements of both Western genres such as jazz and native African music, including the traditional kossa. This later turned into a funky, electronic-tinged genre with both African and Western musical elements, like Dibango’s music of the 1970s.
In other words, the phrase is usually taken to be an encouragement, inviting the listener to dance. This makes sense, considering the topic of both Jackson’s and Rihanna’s songs.
Makossa is a genre of urban music that became popular in Cameroon. It developed in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that it became widely known outside of Africa. It is an upbeat dance style characterized by strong rhythms and brass instruments.
The name makossa comes from the Duala word for “I dance.” This, in turn, came from a traditional dance called the kossa.
Later stylings included more electronic elements in an attempt to help makossa cross into pop music. There was some minor success, with several international hits gaining attention. Other genres such as bikutsi also draw inspiration from makossa.
Since Dibango has never publicly shared his own interpretation of the lyrics to Soul Makossa, the best we can do is make educated guesses. The leading theory seems to be that the iconic chorus of the track is some kind of encouragement to dance, based on the meaning of “makossa.”
However, other people have suggested different meanings. Fans of Dibango as well as Jackson’s and Rihanna’s songs have offered theories that the phrase is based on a Zulu saying about following your mother’s wisdom.
However, the leading theory seems to be that the lyrics are based on the word “makossa,” with wordplay used as scatting for the sake of the music.
In other words, it can best be interpreted as a repetitive way of saying “Let’s dance!” An appropriate interjection for makossa fans as well as followers of Jackson and Rihanna.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
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