In another world, 22-year-old Ephraim Bugumba would be a prince.
Originally from Makobola, a village in northeastern Congo, Bugumba was born into a royal family. His grandfather was the chief, and he was the fifth child among seven brothers and sisters.
When Bugumba was three, the Makobola massacre tore his village and his family apart. The bloodshed erupted during the New Year’s holiday in late 1999, in the midst of a rebellion against President Laurent Kabila, and claimed an estimated 500 to 600 lives. After Bugumba’s grandfather was killed, he and his family spent much of the next 12 years moving from one refugee camp to another across southern Africa.
Instead of a life of royalty, Bugumba led a life of transience and privation. He didn’t have a bed of his own until he was 16.
His family’s long journey brought him to the U.S. in 2012, and he now lives in DeKalb. Around Chicago, as a jazz-indebted, folk-inspired singer-songwriter, Bugumba is making a different name for himself: he goes by Storyteller, and for him, music is a way to connect to an African home he barely knows. “I remember the refugee camps, and I have scattered memories of what the Congo was like,” Bugumba says. “Mostly, my memories come from what I am told by my family.”
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Bugumba learned about the importance of personal history and myth through the stories his family told in the camps. By sharing these tales, they kept the memory of their village in the Congo alive.
Some of their stories served as reminders of the sacrifices they had already made. Bugumba remembers how his father and older brothers, prime targets during the massacre because of their lineage, lived in hiding in the jungle outside Makobola for months—only later were they able to help the rest of the family escape. Bugumba himself, too young to go with them into the jungle, had to be disguised as a girl in order to survive.
Other stories were a form of escape. Bugumba recalls nights spent in a refugee camp in Malawi, where he and his siblings would gather around a bonfire while his mother told them about their old village, sometimes in song. He says that his mother’s stories helped him realize that he needed to shape his own.
“She would tell us stories and myths and all that,” Bugumba says. “Mostly about our village, how it was a big family. How we all originated from our ancestors. She’d talk about how beautiful our village was, how big the trees and fruits were. How it was never cold. I grew up around that, and because of that I felt that I should take the storytelling tradition to the next level. ”
After the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees helped his family enter the U.S., Bugumba went to high school in Mobile, Alabama. In 2014 he moved with his parents and siblings to Carol Stream, Illinois, and within a year he’d graduated from nearby Wheaton North High. After a short stint at Lewis University in Romeoville, where he studied music merchandising, he dropped out in fall 2016 and moved to DeKalb. Soon he began to perform publicly as Storyteller.
Bugumba wanted to use his music to uphold the oral tradition of his family and his village. He says that in his culture, music is often a means of transmitting stories and even sacred myths from generation to generation. His songs as Storyteller are even titled like chapters in an autobiography. “Storyteller: The Prince,” “Storyteller: The Refugee,” and “Storyteller: Tell Me You Love Me,” all of which appear on his upcoming debut EP, make up a song cycle about his journey from devastation to self-discovery. They’re about his life, which means they’re also about the places and people he’s left behind.
The lyrics are rooted in Bugumba’s history and heritage, but the music that supports them is more varied in its origins. Because he was constantly moving from place to place, he grew up listening to all sorts of things—the tastes of the people around him, whether in Malawi, Tanzania, or South Africa, figured into his musical vocabulary. The influences he cites include African artists such as Congolese singer-songwriter Lokua Kanza and South African reggae singer Lucky Dube, as well as American staples Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.
Bugumba connected especially strongly with Marley, in particular the socially conscious themes of his lyrics. When he heard Marley sing about searching for a home in “Redemption Song,” he says, it touched him in a visceral way. He trails off, overwhelmed, when he tries to describe it. “I’m sorry, I’m running out of the right English,” he says. “My English comes and goes.”
During the first few years Bugumba’s family spent in the camps, his parents would gather the family every night to pray. But he felt lost and depressed, unable to take comfort in anything but his mother’s stories and the music on the radio. Prayer seemed meaningless. “I didn’t want to believe in God,” he says. “In my mind, I would ask, if God was real, why are we here right now?”
Stability entered Bugumba’s life only after the family arrived in South Africa when he was seven. They were still forced to move every few months, but they stayed within Johannesburg. When Bugumba was ten, they started regularly attending an apostolic church, where he discovered the joy of singing. Not long after, he found his first guitar. The most important thing he found during this time, though, was what he calls an “epiphany” about the role of religion in his life.
“The Bible says that the potter crushes the clay,” he says. “When he feels that the shape doesn’t fit into the design he has for the clay, he has to crush it, then rebuild it. We were not living the life that God had designed for us. So he needed to crush us a little. He’s just started rebuilding us.”
The move to the U.S., after nearly ten years in South Africa, was part of that rebuilding. Bugumba was 16 when his family arrived, and at first the cultural differences were hard for him. He struggled to deal with racism, from black people as well as white people—something he’d never encountered in the form it took here. He says he was “heartbroken” by the divisions he saw.
His parents’ expectations presented another hurdle. “African parents want their kids to be doctors and engineers,” he says. Bugumba’s decision to attend Lewis University arose partly from a desire to meet these expectations.
After dropping out and moving to DeKalb, he easily could’ve felt set adrift again, but his foundations in music and religion gave him more of a sense of purpose than he’d had in Africa. “One of the advantages we got from the life we led in Africa is a confidence in our lives,” he says. “We know God is behind us.”
Bugumba began to perform as Storyteller at open mikes, first in DeKalb and then across Chicagoland. Late last year he auditioned for the 16th season of American Idol, and this spring he made it to the top 50 before being voted off the show. “I tried to be too hip, I think,” he says. “I needed to be more authentic, to tell my story.”
Music, storytelling, and faith are the threads from which Bugumba has woven his personal mythology. Even the accounts he gives of his own past can take on the shape and feel of legend. The way he recounts his first experience with music, for instance, make it feel almost like his creation myth, with a fable’s themes of destiny and belief. The story takes place before the massacre, when Bugumba was still living in Makobola. He was two years old and had fallen severely ill.
“My parents thought I was going to die,” he says. “We had no medication we could use. I was stick and bone. My older siblings would tell me they were just watching over me to see when I would pass. One day, there was a song on the radio playing, and my mother saw my foot make little dancing moves. She made me some porridge, and I survived the illness. Ever since then, music has been in my DNA. It’s been an inevitable truth.”
In that story, music is a source of healing. In the songs his mother sang about his ancestors, music was a source of education. Often Bugumba finds that his music heals him and educates others. He’s realized that few people in America, or even in Africa, know about the tragedy that befell his home, and his music enlightens them.
But the main reason he performs is to connect. He considers himself an introvert, the consequence of spending his formative years constantly in transit. He says a fear of losing people makes him wary of seeking out new friends. “I haven’t stayed anywhere long enough to belong,” he explains. “Everything is temporary. When a connection dies, I feel devastated, and so I don’t try to connect.”
When he tells his story through song, though, he says it forms a bond that words alone cannot. “Music is the connection I have to people now. When I play my music, I’m home.”
Bugumba is currently recording his debut EP, which he plans to self-release on November 14. To help stir up interest in the EP, which he hasn’t titled yet, in September he’s partnering with Sofar Sounds for a national tour. (He’s worked with the organization before on local gigs.) Sofar books “secret” shows in nontraditional venues—living rooms, shops, backyards—and fans apply for admission on the Sofar website. Those who can get in (the spaces are usually pretty small) are notified of the location the day before. Bugumba will play in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York, wrapping up with a Chicago show on Wednesday, September 26. v