Tiny Desk Constestant Ephraim Bugumba Processes Pain Through Music : All Songs Considered Ephraim Bugumba was 3 years old when his family fled violence in the Republic of the Congo. His song. "Voices in My Head," was a standout entry in NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest.
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This Tiny Desk Contestant Processes Pain Through Music: 'It Became Our Safety Place'

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This Tiny Desk Contestant Processes Pain Through Music: 'It Became Our Safety Place'

This Tiny Desk Contestant Processes Pain Through Music: 'It Became Our Safety Place'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/741147765/741568282" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the Congolese village where Ephraim Bugumba was born, history, sacred myths and family law told through music is an honored tradition, so it makes perfect sense he also goes by the name StoryTeller.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOICES IN MY HEAD")

EPHRAIM BUGUMBA: (Singing) Hang your coat. Keep it color-coded. Fill my cup.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Twenty-three-year-old Bugumba is a refugee who survived the 1999 massacre at Makobola, in which 600 people died. He was only 3 years old when it happened, but psychological scars from the effect on him and his family remain. He sings about how it's affected his ability to display emotion in this song, "Voices In My Head," which he submitted to NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest. Ephraim Bugumba now lives in DeKalb, Ill., and he joins us now from the studios of member station WNIU.

Welcome to the program.

BUGUMBA: Hey, Lulu. Thanks so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, it's our pleasure. So I want to start with what happened to your family. How did you get out of the Congo? And where did you go?

BUGUMBA: Well, it all started in the year 1999, when the massacre took place in my village, like you say, that - I was about 3 years old. And my father and my older brothers fled. And they went into the wilderness. And I was disguised as a little girl because the rebels would either kill the boys or turn them into child soldiers, so my mom got creative and dressed me up as a little girl in a little skirt. We walked, we hitchhiked some fleet trucks until we got to the refugee camp in Tanzania. And then from there, we stayed a few months, then moved to the refugee camp in Malawi and then from there moved to the refugee camp in Mozambique. We got splitted (ph) with my father. And then he went to Johannesburg, South Africa, for a little while. And then after that, we joined him over there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how did you get to America? And how old were you?

BUGUMBA: I got to America in the year 2012 at 16 years old. We filed our case to the UNHCR, you know, which is a department that takes care of refugees. Now, where - my father is from a royal lineage, so his head had a price on it in per se, so my family was at risk of being murdered if we tried to go back home. And so we pleaded our case with the United States, and the UNHCR sponsored us to move here. And that's how we got here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you experience coming to America? I mean, what was that transition like?

BUGUMBA: It was definitely a dream come true to finally be able to live life without looking over your shoulder, without being afraid that someone was going to try to kill you, someone is going to try to take one of your family members from you. You know, it was definitely a relief. And it was, like I said, a dream come true.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you end up using music to get you through your journey?

BUGUMBA: My mother and father were musicians themselves. They met in the church choir. My father was my mother's choir master. Music has always been - it had always been a part of our life. You know, we gathered at 8 p.m. every night, and we sang. We read hymns. And my mom told us some stories from the Bible. This is how we got through the regular days. And then when we were fleeing in the forest in the wilderness, in all of that madness, my parents would always still gather us. And we would still pray, and we would sing. So it became our safety place, you know? In a world where everything was just uncertain; you were not sure if your next meal was going to come around. You were not sure if you were going to make it to the next meal. Music was the one thing that was sacred and safe. I knew that 8 p.m. was going to come along, and we were going to have a good time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's listen to a little bit more of your song "Voices In My Head."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOICES IN MY HEAD")

BUGUMBA: (Singing) And I'm not calling out for help. I'm just scared of being vulnerable. Said I got voices in my head. And they keep me up at night. And I'm not calling out for help. I'm just scared of being vulnerable, trying to stay alive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you want to say with your music? What do you want people who listen to understand?

BUGUMBA: I want to give hope. I want to remind people that no matter how dark it gets, it can always get better. I want to tell people that it's OK to talk about not being OK. I want to allow people to express themselves. I want to allow vulnerability even amongst men. You know, we have a great fear of being perceived as weak when we cry or when we laugh too loud or when we show compassion. I just want to let us all know that it's OK; that we're created for a reason. We have those things so we could get through life with them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ephraim Bugumba, also known as StoryTeller - his Tiny Desk Contest entry "Voices In My Head" is on our website at npr.org.

Thanks very much for speaking with us.

BUGUMBA: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOICES IN MY HEAD")

BUGUMBA: (Singing) Fill my cup. Fill it to the brim. I heard your voices screaming from the mountaintops.

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