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Etymology of ‘Mamase Mamasa Mamakusa’

If you’re familiar with the Michael Jackson song “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (or if you’ve heard one of its countless covers) you’ve probably wondered what the hell mamase mamasa mamakusa means.

Well, it doesn’t mean anything. Technically.

But it’s based off of a refrain from the song “Soul Makossa” released in 1972 by Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango. The original lyrics were “ma-mako, ma-ma-sa, mako-mako ssa” which were a play on the word makossa. Makossa is a style of music originating in Cameroon in the 1960s and evolving from Western influences, like Latin jazz and instruments, and Pan-African influences, like the claps and chants of kossa dancing.

A decade after “Soul Makossa”, Michael Jackson ‘borrowed’ the refrain for his Thriller track “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, and the chant underwent minor pronunciation changes to turn it into the scat-like mumbo-jumbo we remember today.