Tshala Muana, Congolese Singer With Danceable Messages, Dies at 64
Tshala Muana, a Congolese singer who brought a supple voice and sensual dance moves to songs about women’s dignity and social issues, died on Dec. 10 in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was 64.
Her death, in a hospital, was announced on Facebook by her producer and companion, Claude Mashala. He did not cite a cause, but Ms. Muana had a stroke in 2020 and had diabetes and hypertension.
Unlike other internationally successful Congolese performers, Ms. Muana sang most of her songs in Tshiluba, the native language of her Kasai tribe, rather than in French or Lingala, the Congolese lingua franca. Her songs often addressed social concerns, insisting on women’s strength and decrying abuse; she also promoted condom use to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa.
She was praised as the “queen” of mutuashi, a traditional Kasai rhythm and hip-pumping dance which she updated in her hits and carried to concert stages worldwide. In the early 2000s, Ms. Muana was elected to Congo’s parliament along with another top musician, Tabu Ley. She championed issues involving women, children and the poor and became widely known as Mamu Nationale, “Mother of the Nation.”
Elisabeth Tshala Muana Muidikay was born on March 13, 1958, in Élisabethville, in what was then the Belgian Congo; the city is now Lubumbashi, the second largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was the second of 10 children of Amadeus Muidikayi and Alphonsine Bambiwa Tumba. Her father, a soldier, died during civil warfare in Congo when she was 6 years old.
Ms. Muana had an arranged marriage as a teenager, but she left it after the death of an infant daughter. She moved to Kinshasa, where she became a dancer and backup singer in the band led by the singer M’Pongo Love.
In 1980 she left her homeland, which by then had been renamed Zaire, and traveled through West Africa. She settled in Ivory Coast, where she started her solo career, and recorded her first single, “Amina,” in Paris in 1982. She moved to Paris around the time she recorded her first album, “Kami,” there in 1984.
By the time she returned to Zaire in the mid-1980s, she had established herself as a hitmaker in Africa. In 1987, she had a pan-African hit with “Karibou Yangu,” whose lyrics were in Swahili.
She moved to Paris again in 1990 and remained there until the end of the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 before returning to what was now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ms. Muana maintained a long and prolific career, releasing nearly two dozen albums and performing in Africa, Europe and the United States. The percolating grooves of her songs fused mutuashi rhythms with salsa, Congolese soukous and other African and Caribbean rhythms, deploying synthesizers and horns alongside traditional percussion. One of her most highly regarded albums, “Mutuashi,” was released in the United States in 1996.
Her songs often carried messages of ethical uplift and social criticism, at times veiled in metaphor. At her concerts, which brought her to stadiums across Africa, she was renowned for dancing that fans considered sexy and detractors considered vulgar. In 2003 she shared the Kora All Africa Music Award for best female central African artist with another Congolese singer, M’bilia Bel.
In November 2020, Ms. Muana released her last single, “Ingratitude,” a song chiding someone for disloyalty to a mentor. She was arrested and imprisoned, apparently because Congo’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, believed the song was criticizing him for breaking away from Joseph Kabila, Congo’s former president, whom Ms. Muana had supported. She was released within a day, and Mr. Mashala, her producer and companion, said at the time that the song was aimed more generally at a lifetime of betrayals by people and corporations.
Ms. Muana had no children. Information on survivors other than Mr. Mashala was not immediately available.
Although Ms. Muana championed her Kasai roots, she strongly supported multicultural unity for her strife-torn country.
“In Congo there is no love for each other, no one has the country at heart,” she told The Observer, a Ugandan newspaper, in 2009. “We were elected to Parliament to represent our cultures and musicians, but the primary assignment was teaching love.”