DR Congo is rarely thought of, remembered for positive reasons.
Its political history is synonym with chaos, trauma, shock, injustice and human rights violations. From the independence fiasco, to Patrice Lumumba’s death and constant Rwandan aggression on the Eastern side of the country, the Congolese diaspora was always united through the horrific experience of trauma, pain and war. From the elders to the new generation of French and Belgian musicians and rappers born in the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s, the issue of war remains a real problem.
However, if the political side of the matter is a real disaster, the Congolese excel in another field where no one seems to be able to top them: they live, breathe, embody music from the core. Five times bigger than France, with provinces such as Katanga as big as Spain in terms of space, the Congolese possess a cultural, human wealth which even surpasses that of their soil. Indeed, it is located at the heart of Central Africa, a place known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as The Great Aethiopia, rich in gold, diamonds, iron, and coveted by the ancient European powers, even in ancient times, for these incredible natural resources.
For this reason, each region or province of the DR Congo is populated by various ethnic groups whose members could represent a sole nation within a nation.
When it comes to the spectrum of music, the center and focus was always placed upon Lingala-speaking singers. Their sense of melody, which is unmatched, and their musicality seemed to always renew with time. Yet, the domination of these Lingala-speaking singers could also find an explanation in history itself. Though the theme remains taboo, modern-day DR Congo was torn apart by the horror of the slave trade, both at the hands of the Arabians and Europeans.
By the 17th century, millions of Kongo people were taken, kidnapped from their cities and sent to Brazil, Argentina, the Caribbean and even Louisiana where their Kongo heritage, in terms of language, spirituality or music remained strong. Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil still count many Kongo branches, descendants of deported Kongo kings and queens who kept the traditions of royalty in the nations where they now live. In that sense, the Bakongo culture, through slavery, represented the first massive diaspora of that people. Their culture stood the test of time. In Argentina, the same Bakongo people became the founders of the national dance, now known as Tango. (the dance was originally, Semba, which still exists today in modern-day Angola). The Kongo and Lingala-speaking singers in the DR Congo, often of Mukongo background have taken over the market of the music scene.
In that sense, things were always much more complicated for the other ethnic groups to make it out worldwide. This fact is so real that foreigners, and non-Congolese African, reduce the culture and music of the DR Congo to the Kongo-Kikongo-Lingala connection only, since the other cultures are not placed at the forefront in the same manner.
In the Eastern part of the country, Innoss B, originally from Goma, and thus Swahiliphone, became the young rising star, especially since Tanzanian and other Swahili-speaking singers have put their countries on the map. Yet, though Kenyan Benga music has influenced Zairian rumba and soukouss in the 1970s and 1980s, the focus on Eastern Congolese remained void. In the 1970s, a musical prodigy known as Abumba Masikini, brother to Abeti Masikini, became the face of the short rumba-psychedelic movement. Way too ahead of his time, blending Swahili with lingala and Luba influences, his music failed to conquer the Congolese listeners at the time, much more focused on the Kinshasa scene.
Yet, the Luba culture somehow resisted this Kinshasa domination throughout the years.
The Baluba people, spread throughout Kasai and Katanga, always had a double status. If they are often teased about their constant pride, they remain also isolated, feeling misunderstood. Their culture, language (Tshiluba) is unique and like no one else in the nation. Known for not bowing down to no one, the Luba clan is attached to royalty, thoughts, reflection, culture and spirituality. Despite the brutal Belgian colonial regime, they managed to keep their heritage in tact but were greatly affected by the trauma left by the violent history of the DR Congo.
Contrary to the Eastern Congolese musicians who failed to make a name for themselves on a national level, the Luba people never attempted to make their music more acceptable by singing in Lingala at all.
Actually, their music, through the instruments, the drums, the bass lines, whether in gospel, traditional spiritual chants to contact the ancestors, is the basis of the Lingala-speaking scene as well. The Kongo singers have been greatly influenced by the Baluba sound and spiritual experience. Since the Luba clan always refused to bow down to the Kinshasa codes in music, this resistance helped them protect their heritage even more.
Yet, the Kinshasa domination goes beyond the borders of the African country and follows deep into the waves of migration. Many sons and daughters coming from the provinces of the DR Congo, whether from Goma, Katanga, Kisangani, Kasai or the Equateur rather choose to assimilate to the Kinois culture first, as they carry a certain complex of inferiority towards their original homes in the country-side.
Kinshasa is therefore synonym with modernity, advancement, hence stereotypes applied to all world capitals. Unfortunately, in the diaspora, many Baluba parents who had decided to assimilate to the Kinshasa culture became Lingala speakers and did not transmit the Luba heritage to their children out of shame. However, for the majority of the others, whether they chose to assimilate or not, the Luba heritage became a strength, a symbol of pride, which was always displayed through music.
In that sense, the Kasaian music scene could be split between four main groups: the traditional clan (related to the spiritual field), the semi-traditional music, the modern style and the gospel scene. Kasaian musicians often sample or incorporate classic Luba children tales in their songs with the option of federating the members through the recollection of a common memory and past. These traditional singers often sing the memory of the ancestors and the love for the lands. Then, semi-traditional singers such as the Bayuda du Congo (The Jews of Congo) blend the traditional sounds with some new adaptations. If Kabongo Mbaya represented the gospel side, Tshala Muana was the one who modernized the traditional Luba sound.
Born in 1958 in Katanga, Tshala Muana sang, wrote, composed, arranged and produced her own music. She won countless awards, released more than 20 albums and mainly sang in Tshiluba, though she could also pay tribute to her Swahili identity through the Katangan version of Kiswahili or sing in Lingala. In that sense, through her music, Muana put an end to the complex of inferiority which had grown within the minds of many diasporan or assimilated Baluba who had chosen to adhere to the Kinois heritage they perceived as being more modern.
The revolution of Tshala Muana relied on many factors. First, she was a woman, very beautiful at that, but also got involved in a genre where females were not always welcome. Traditionally, the Baluba men were the singers, and if a woman wanted to address a specific topic to the man she loved, she had to confess it to the singer who would perform on her behalf, with the lyrics intended. Then, she got a hold on her own music, remained deeply attached to her language, to her heritage but also kept a foot in modernity by being open to the change around her, just like the Kinois scene had done prior to her as early as the 1930s, blending blues, soul, West African sounds and a little bit of jazz.
Muana was, like Sam Mangwana and many others of her rank, members of the generation of openness, “ouverture“. This “ouverture” had to do with several factors. As independence approached, as early as the late 1950s, groups in the Lingala speaking scene began to highlight their Africanity and adopted a pan-African attitude. Many began to praise other African nations, a tradition which carried on later on and still exists today. Tabu Ley Rochereau honored Ivory Coast, Mbilia Bel later paid tribute to Kenya in “Nairobi“, and Sam Mangwana, Tshala Muana also elevated these other African countries, going as far as incorporating their languages in their songs.
Yet, the feeling of pan-Africanity did not stop there at all. It went beyond the frontiers of Africa and joined the early Kongo diaspora whose ancestors had been deported during the early waves of the slave trades. Mangwana, Rochereau, Muana or Papa Wemba connected with the Latin American sounds, especially with Cuba where el son was appropriated again by the Kongo who remained in Africa, thus becoming the basis of what one knows as rumba.
It is clear that the musical politics of pan-Africanity was also pushed by Mobutu as he forced the Zairians to decolonize their minds through the process of authenticité, going back to the roots. The infamous 1974 concert hosted in Zaire, also accentuated the pan-African factor in the now DR Congo.
In this effect, the music of Tshala Muana was greatly impacted by the idea of openness. Just like Mangwana or Franco in the Lingala-speaking world had placed their music at the center of the pan-African heritage, Muana thought of doing the same through the Luba heritage. She would incorporate, collaborate and sing with Latin American, Cuban and French Caribbean musicians without changing anything to her craft. With her, the Luba sonorities were never watered down, but the other genres were rather Luba-ized in the most modern but also traditional way.
Through this rather rare process, Muana built a specific bridge between the Luba region, culture, which had also been plagued by the slave trade, both European, and Arab. Still, she also forged a space for the Luba culture in the black diasporas. Consequently, the 1980s and 1990s were her most prolific years, a time when pop, zouk, salsa sounds were incorporated within the traditional Luba heritage.
In 1996, she released the song Lekela Muadi (Stop Crying) which became infamous for her blend of salsa and traditional Luba instruments. In this continuous bridge between the Congo and its diasporas in the Latin world, the song became an anthem, a classic in many nations such as Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Honduras or Panama. However, if she did not let the diaspora influences take over her music, Muana had no issue with being the one influenced.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Kassav a Martinican/Guadeloupean band, was one of the very first zouk groups to openly showcase their desire to reconnect with the Motherland. The band led by Jacob Desvarieux was unusual at the time, knowing the French propaganda in the French Antilles where the African ancestry was always toned down to promote a whitewashed Creole identity deemed more civilized and superior to the African roots. As Kassav kept growing, their influence felt strong in the Congo as well.
As usual, Sam Mangwana who was always international in his approach to music incorporated zouk and Creole words in his songs, but Tshala Muana, in songs such as Mamu or Dezo Dezo highlighted that Kassav influence she heavily blended with traditional music.
Often, her detractors who were much more attached to the traditional sound accused her of departing from the original one. It is true that the dance moves promoted as mutwashi in her videos had nothing to do with the pure one which involve more movements than the simple hip rolls.
Yet, despite it all, Tshala Muana was the first artist to break barriers in the Kasaian music scene. Before her, the Kasaian sound was rather isolated from the rest of the Kongo music scene. This lack of diffusion was interpreted by some critics as being a display of extreme Luba pride, as if the musicians refused to share their history and culture with the rest of the country. In reality, traditional Luba culture was not meant for entertainment per se, but linked to the Luba spiritual faith, heritage and oral history. Tshala Muana put an end to this isolation and placed the genre at the center of the national culture. Through her, the Luba heritage was also connected to the other Kongo diaspora now living in Cuba, the Latin Caribbean (French and Spanish), and South America.
At the same time, through champeta in Colombia, soukouss Congolese music became the basis of the dancing new genre too.
Tshala Muana, like Kassav, Sam Mangwana or Papa Wemba were Congolese actors in the development of pan-African unity in music, and reunification with the other diasporas as their sounds proved not to know any frontier.
To the Baluba people spread throughout the diaspora, Tshala Muana was the modern voice every Luba kid, no matter how long the family had been living in Belgium, the Netherlands or in Germany could identify as. She was, for many of them, the last link to a Luba culture which, as time goes by, becomes more and more distant and lost in time. Ironically enough, Tshala became the voice for many assimilated Luba who had chosen the Kinois culture, as she represented both the traditional sound and the modern one.
Tshala Muana was an icon, a legend, a cultural figure, a source of pride for all Baluba.
Her music will live on forever.
Shala bimpa, mamu nationale wetu.
By VKY, All Rights Reserved, 2022