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Former war refugee, DeKalb resident auditions for ‘American Idol’

Ephraim Bugumba, 22, of DeKalb, aka "StoryTeller," sings "Tennessee Whiskey" during an open mic night at House Cafe in DeKalb. He's had two auditions for the ABC singing competition "American Idol," and has performed for the show's panel of judges.
Ephraim Bugumba, 22, of DeKalb, aka "StoryTeller," sings "Tennessee Whiskey" during an open mic night at House Cafe in DeKalb. He's had two auditions for the ABC singing competition "American Idol," and has performed for the show's panel of judges.

DeKALB – Music can carry a lot of different meanings for people, but for 22-year-old Ephraim Bugumba of DeKalb, music began as an escape from the early years of his childhood spent as a war refugee.

“Music has always been what my parents used to keep [my siblings and I] away from the madness,” Bugumba said. “At a very early age, and we had to come to terms with life and death and to keep our minds from that stuff, we would pray and sing. That’s how music became a part of me.”

Through his life, Bugumba learned to express his life experiences through music, and he will now try to win over the country with his story as he tries to become an “American Idol.” He’s had two auditions for the ABC singing competition’s 16th season, which premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday on ABC, and has performed for the show’s panel of judges.

Bugumba was born in Makobola, a small village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where in 1999, missionaries reported the massacre of about 500 people by rebels hoping to oust Congo President Laurent Kabila. This separated Bugumba from his father and brothers for months before they reunited at a refugee camp in Tanzania.

“That was when things got really hard – moving from country to country,” Bugumba said. “Sometimes, we had to disguise ourselves, and one time, we crossed a crocodile-infested river in a small boat that could’ve capsized. A lot of people didn’t make the journey.”

Bugumba said he went from Tanzania to Malawi to Mozambique and finally ended up in South Africa, where he stayed about 10 years. Through a sponsorship, he was able to go to private music school, and although his family still carried the tradition of singing, Bugumba focused more on dance at the time.

Through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Bugumba was able to come to America, and attended high school in Mobile, Alabama. He played soccer, and although he started singing more in his senior year, Bugumba did not join a music program out of fear that he would not fit in.

His self-doubt came to a head while he was studying music merchandising at Lewis University in Romeoville. His then-girlfriend broke up with him and said that if she had the talent that Bugumba had, she would not let it go to waste.

“That pushed me to pursue it,” Bugumba said.

Bugumba left Lewis University after one year and settled in DeKalb, where he has lived the past two years. Although Bugumba can periodically be seen performing at the House Cafe in downtown DeKalb, he often drives to Chicago to perform at as many open mics as he can.

“Sometimes, I drove two hours to perform in front of two people,” Bugumba said. “I did it because I had no choice, but I love it.”

On the longer road trips, Bugumba said he tells himself that one day, it will all pay off.

An opportunity almost presented itself when Bugumba auditioned for “America’s Got Talent,” but he could not make it past the first round.

“I almost felt like quitting, but music is all I know,” he said.

Bugumba then tried out for “American Idol” in the fall and got called back for another audition. While on his way to his second performance, Bugumba said he was almost hit by a car.

“If there wasn’t a pole in the way, it would’ve hit me, so I went in with all these nerves and sang to executives,” Bugumba said.

But Bugumba conquered the frayed nerves and got to go to New York to perform in front of judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan.

Through his experiences, Bugumba said he does not believe in the idea of a musical genre, because music is expression, and when you box it into a certain type, it stops becoming an expression. Much like crying or laughing, there is no specific way to do it.

Bugumba said his style is just about telling a story.

Hence, his stage name, “StoryTeller.”

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