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Ephraim Bugumba Brings His Story of Endurance To Tiny Desk Concert Series

Written by on July 19, 2023

Ephraim Bugumba is a Chicago-based Congolese-American multi-talented artist who uses music to share his story as a survivor. He visited the Vocalo studios to discuss the message behind his music, and his new single “HighWay Love.”

This spring, Ephraim Bugumba submitted his talents to the 2023 Tiny Desk Contest with a stripped down performance of his single “Delilah.” Though he was not chosen as the winner, he (alongside fellow Chicago artist Nola Adé) was instead selected to open up for the winners (Utah band Little Moon), when NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest: On The Road tour stopped in Chicago on July 6.

Just hours before he took the stage at Subterranean for the Tiny Desk Contest: On The Road show, Bugumba stopped by the Vocalo studios to sit down with mornings host Bekoe. The two delved into Bugumba’s name change, his backstory as a refugee, time on American Idol and what it means to learn music — and closed out the interview with a live preview of an exclusive single. Listen to the whole conversation above or read on below.


Ephraim Bugumba stopped by the Vocalo studios to sit down with mornings host Bekoe before his performance for NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest: On The Road tour. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

Previously known as E The Storyteller, Bugumba participated in American Idol in the 2018 run and was encouraged by judge Lionel Richie to change his name. 

“It was catchy, people liked it but… [Richie] was like, ‘Be you. Bring those African drums to us,” Bugumba stated. 

RELATED: Ephraim Bugumba, Former American Idol Contestant, Returns With Moving New Single

Bugumba was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and forced to leave due to The Second Congo War. He and his family fled to South Africa when he was 3 years old, after surviving the 1999 Makobola Massacre, which occurred as a result of ethnic tensions in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bugumba and his family were one of many who, with help from the United Nations, were granted refugee status following the war.

His family arrived in America in 2012.  All the while, they used music to cope with the day-to-day struggles of surviving. Even while moving from place to place, they made time to sing; no matter what was going on, his parents would gather their family to sing psalms and hymns. 

“The one thing that made sense to me in the world was that music is constant,” Bugumba said. 

Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

Bugumba is a natural born artist and musician, like many members of his familial community growing up. Bugumba recollected how he learned to interact with music over time instead of being taught lessons like most Americans. Bugumba went to college for music in the suburbs of Illinois, but he remembers being uninspired by the canon of classical European music he was taught instead of the music he was making: soul. 

“Where I’m from, people don’t learn how to sing,” he recalled. “Back at home it’s DNA, but here it’s something you have to add.” 

Bekoe and Ephraim Bugumba outside the Vocalo studio on July 6. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

Keep up with Ephraim Bugumba by following him on Instagram and TikTok.

Written introduction by Imani Warren

Interview and audio production by Bekoe

Photography by Morgan Ciocca

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