From a Refugee to a Music Star

Congo’s Charmant asserts himself on Uganda’s music scene

In giving him the first name Charmant, it was as if Mushaga’s parents implored him to go out and charm the world. And it would not be an exaggeration to say that he has charmed Ugandan music fans. His virtuosity on the guitar, electric or acoustic, is enough to tell you where he comes from. He makes perfect improvising choices, making him one of the most sought-after guitarists in the country.

Congo’s Charmant Mushagalusa, commonly known as ‘Shalma Mushaga,’ is widely famous for playing the guitar with exceptional passion. Among his common stunts include playing the guitar while it sits on his head and plucking it using his teeth.

He is the 2014 Victoria International Gospel Awards (VIGA) guitarist of the year.

If you attended the recent Nile Gold Jazz Safari, then you know the man I am talking about. Alongside saxophonist Michael Kitanda, Charmant served an acoustic starter that prepared the musical ‘taste buds’ of the guests waiting for guitarist Norman Brown and singer Thomas Joe.

If you were not there, then know it that Charmant is the man behind those intoxicating guitar melodies in saxophonist Isaiah Katumwa’s Nsiima, Bebe Cool’s Kabirinage Wange and Ntuyo Zange, and Eddie Kenzo’s Nice and Lovely songs. He has worked with several bands: Zawuka, Qwela, Band Aroma and Joel Sebunjo’s Sundiata band.

He has also done his bit with several other artistes, including Juliana Kanyomozi, Irene Ntale, Rema, Judith Babirye and Wilson Bugembe. Well, not many Ugandan guitarists have achieved as much as he has but, most importantly, all this is coming from a person who came here as a refugee.

On the run:

Born in the fertile musical hotbed of eastern Congo, Charmant fled his home country due to insurgency. This followed the 1994 Rwanda genocide that left many Rwandans running to Congo for safety.

“We used to receive many refugees from Rwanda. All the Hutu who ran away from Rwanda formed their base in Bukavu. So, they brought the fight to Congo. You would find the Congo government fighting with them for no reason,” Charmant says.

The situation worsened in 1998 as Laurent Kabila fought his way to power. This forced Charmant to flee his home country, by first camping on the streets of Kigali, Rwanda, which had then attained some relative peace.

“Life became really hard. I started playing my guitar in churches and they would appreciate and fundraise some upkeep money for me,” he says.

In 2004 when he decided to move to Uganda, the fighting in Congo had reduced, but the country wasn’t yet peaceful.

“I came and just introduced myself to Uganda Police at Old Kampala. They registered me. They asked me questions and at that time, there was no one I knew here. They [police] gave me several appointments until the OPM [Office of the Prime Minister] gave me an ID.”

As he searched around for a place to call home, he landed on fellow Congolese musicians, who had also come from Rwanda, and they started the Soars band. At that time, they pitched camp in Nsambya before relocating to Kyebando.

It is while gigging with this group that one James Muhairwe spotted him, immediately falling in love with his skills with the guitar. And when hard times hit harder, Soars moved on abroad for greener pastures, and Muhairwe came to Charmant’s rescue. He took him in as his own brother, taking him to his mother’s home before finding him a house where he would pay rent for him.

First salary:

Muhairwe also opened a studio where he taught Charmant how to record music, skills that would come in handy at a later stage.

“Muhairwe became part of my life,” Charmant says.

“He didn’t have a good job but made sure he was paying my rent. We would sometimes default for three months but the landlord was OK because I was not a bad person.”

Every Sunday, Charmant played the guitar for the Holy Ghost Outpouring church in Kanyanya. It is here that Watoto church spotted him, offering him a job as a full-time church guitarist, earning him a monthly salary of Shs 900,000.

“That was my first salary in life. But it wasn’t easy because I didn’t have any academic papers,” Charmant recalls.

“They asked me to bring any kind of identification. I just showed them the refugee ID, but it wasn’t easy because the OPM wanted me to go to the refugee camp.”

So, the church had to write a letter, affirming to OPM that they had offered him a job. It is then that the OPM gave him leeway to enjoy life in Uganda. His talent found an aenturous playground in Watoto where he was not only a guitarist but helped the children’s choir record songs as well.

The S4 dropout, with no formal training in music, worked with Watoto church for three years, before resigning in 2010 “Because God had blessed me with many friends who wanted to hear my guitar.”

He asked the church to stop the salary so that he was free to do his own things and only volunteer with the church. At the moment, he performs everywhere, from weddings to corporate parties, restaurant and nightclub gigs. He has since formed his own band, the GLS (Great Lakes Sound), which has Kampala Music School teacher, Chris Weigers as the bassist, Roy Kasika on the drums and Pragmo on keyboards.

Currently, Charmant is working on his first project, a smoothAfrican jazz album, which friends and fans are crowd-funding for on www.fezah.com.

“I have supported many artistes and I have reached a level where I need to present myself. I need to produce something that people will talk about in future and inspire people who look up to me. So that I don’t come to your event and do covers I come to do my own stuff,” he says.

Guitarist father:

He has done six songs so far – with six more to go, and is optimistic that it will be ready before closure of the year. It is a gospel jazz album on which he has done his own interpretation of popular gospel songs such as Lwazzi Lwange, Omwoyo, and Bamuyita Yesu where he features Hawa Musa.

The album also features saxophonists Katumwa (on two songs) and Brian Mugenyi. After this album, he plans to do a worship album with Judith Babirye. Charmant’s music journey started as a child in Ntondorubona village in Bukavu, eastern Congo. Born on September 26, 1982, Charmant grew up in a Christian and musical family where his father was a pastor and guitarist.

“I used to watch my father playing the guitar and I would ask him to show me some secretes but he was reluctant because he wanted me to first go to school. But then God’s plans were different,” Charmant says.

Letting nothing to distract his dream, it was a matter of time before the young lad followed in his father’s footsteps. Charmant has never gone to any music school to learn how to play the guitar.

“It just started in me. The Holy Spirit was my teacher because there is no one who held my fingers and taught me that this is C, D, A minor, no one did that. So, the Spirit revealed to me how to do it,” he says.

Charmant, who speaks good Luganda, says he goes to Congo once in two years to visit his parents.

“You know me as Congolese but my spirit isn’t Congolese. I am African,” he says.

Charmant, who is inspired by renowned South African guitarists Jonathan Butler and Jimmy Dludlu, says his dream is to support people who love what he does to also come up. Once his jazz album is out, Charmant plans to organize an East African tour, where he will go around visiting refugee camps.

“I want to encourage these people,” he says.

“I didn’t have a chance to stay in a camp, but I have visited a camp and the life they are living is [like that in] a prison. It is not a free life. God didn’t allow me to go and live that life because he wanted to use me to encourage my brothers and sisters.”

His vision is to do a charity concert where he will carry containers of clothes and food items, to just put a smile on the refugees. He also dreams of opening schools around Africa to enable African children go to school, not to be like him whose parents couldn’t afford school fees.

Source : The Observer

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