rumba on the river

abetiTshala Muana (Elisabeth), outstanding Congolese singer; born Lubumashi, Congo-Kinshasa, 1957; died Kinshasa, December 10, 2022.

Tshala started her professional career in Kinshasa as a dancer in M'Pongo Love's new band in 1976. After two years with M'Pongo, she cut a record with a band called Minzoto Wella Wella and danced for a few months as one of Abeti's Tigresses. Still, her singing career didn't take off until she left Congo-Kinshasa (then Zaire) for Côte d'Ivoire. In Abidjan in 1981 she began to sing with a band led by Ivoirean musician Jimmy Hyacinthe. The following year she cut a twelve-inch forty-five in Paris with Hyacinthe. "Amina," a pop song sung in French, backed "Tshebele," a piece based on the mutuashi rhythm of the Baluba of southern Congo. The record and concerts around Côte d'Ivoire and neighboring countries helped to broaden her popularity.

In 1984, Tshala moved to Paris, which had already become a center for Congolese music production. She recorded her first album, Kami, with Cameroonian arranger Aladji Touré, then recorded two more, Mbanda Matière (a matter of rivals) and M'Pokolo (le petit ruisseau) (small stream) for Safari Ambiance. M'Pokolo, arranged by Touré, featured Congolese guitarist Rigo Star. Tshala wrote much of her own material and, unlike most Congolese who sang in Lingala and played the rumba and its speeded-up off-shoot, soukous, Tshala preferred to employ the mutuashi rhythm and to sing in her first language, Tshiluba. She delivered her songs with a warm contralto, and in concert she added a nimble display of footwork.

Having established herself in Abidjan and Paris, Tshala returned to Kinshasa in 1986 to re-introduce herself with a series of concerts. Despite an enthusiastic welcome, Congo's declining economy made it nearly impossible to maintain a career there. Tshala kept her base in Paris, releasing albums at the rate of nearly one per year and touring periodically in Europe and Africa.

U.S. label Shanachie released a compilation of her recordings on CD, Soukous Siren, in 1991, although most of the contents were based on the mutuashi rhythm. Tshala also continued to record new material but at a slower pace than in the eighties. Mutuashi (1996) and Pika Pende (1999) were both well received.

Tshala joins Abeti, M'Pongo Love, and Mbilia Bel in the first tier of Congolese woman entertainers. She worked to develop her voice to match her natural gifts for dance and song writing. That she championed the mutuashi rhythm and Tshiluba language limited her popularity at home where the rumba and Lingala ruled. But her choice mattered little to International audiences, unschooled in Congo's ethnic politics, who embraced her music and sustained her popularity.
© 2011 Gary Stewart

Mbanda Matière (Safari Sound SAS051) 1984; M'Pokolo (le petit ruisseau) (Safari Sound SAS057) 1985; La Devine (Espera 621) 1987; Munanga (Syllart 8376) 1988; Biduaya (Celluloid 66973-2) 1990; Soukous Siren (Shanachie 64031) 1991; Mutuashi (Stern's STCD1069) 1996; Pika Pende (N'diaye ND065) 1999.

S. Clerfeuille, "Tshala Muana attend propositions sérieuses," Bingo (no. 431, Dec. 1988); K. Braun, "Tsearching for Tshala," The Beat (vol. 10, no. 5, 1991); G. Stewart, Rumba on the River (London and New York, 2000).