For Jon Muq, a singer-songwriter born in Uganda and now living in Austin, Texas, music is part of a larger conversation he’s having with the world and everybody in it. Drawing from African as well as western musical trends and traditions, he devises songs as small gifts, designed to settle into everyday life and provoke reflection and resilience. “These days the world is sad,” he explains, “so I wanted to make happy songs. I wanted to write songs that connected with the listener in a very personal way. When someone listens to my music, it’s not just about me and what I’m singing. It’s about how they understand the songs individually. I think these songs can speak many languages, depending on what you want from them.”
Muq’s experiences as a child in Uganda and as a man in America give him a unique perspective on the world he’s addressing. “I grew up in a very different life, where so many people pass through hard times just because they don’t have much. Our biggest issue was food scarcity. Then I came to a different world, which gave me a picture of how to write a song that can find balance with everyone wherever they are, whether they have a lot or not much.” As he completes his debut with producer Dan Auerbach and tours with Billy Joel, Norah Jones, Mavis Staples, Amythyst Kiah, Corinne Bailey Rae, and others, Muq is expanding the scope of his music to speak to more and more people.
He has nursed his obsession with music for as long as he can remember. “When I was 7, I realized there was something about sound that I appreciated. We had a brass band at school that would play the school anthem, and I would sit between the horn players and it was so loud. I loved it. People would ask, Who is this strange boy up there with the band?” Later, he joined the group playing bugle, but was dismayed when he graduated and learned that his new school did not have a band. But it did have voices filling the hallways, which excited him. At night he would lay in his dormitory bed listening to those harmonies, eventually summoning the nerve to sneak out and track them down. He searched the three-story building until he found the choir room, and the group soon adopted the curious child as a mascot, giving him homemade shakers to play. “I joined the choir but didn’t sing. I was just following sound.”
During holidays, he would stay with a cousin in Kampala, cleaning house and working odd jobs to earn extra money. During one of those visits, the teenaged Muq saw a CD that caught his attention: We Are the World. “I played it and was astounded. Where are these people singing very differently yet all singing the same song? I’m taking this CD. I didn’t even ask him. I just took it. I listened to it for a long time and I mastered all the vocals and tones of the people who were singing. That was my first exposure to modern western music, and it was fascinating to me.” It was a good lesson for him, as mimicking and mastering the vocals of such a disparate array of artists—from Michael Jackson to Cyndi Lauper to Kenny Rogers—expanded the expressive range of his voice.
It also taught Muq to write songs in English. “Since Uganda has 45 tribes, it has more than 45 languages. People sing in their own languages. My language is Luganda, but I have always sung in English.” In fact, he penned his first song as a love letter in English: “A friend of mine was going through a relationship problem. They were breaking up. He spoke English but could not write it, so I told him, I can write a letter for you to change her mind. And it worked! The girl was so happy, and she kept the letter.” Muq decided to make that his first song, so he asked his friend to steal the letter back so he could copy it. It eventually became “Always as One,” and “it’s still the song I start my shows with.”
Muq would spend hours walking around the village of Mutungo at night and singing western songs. Residents would peek through fences trying to catch a glimpse of the mysterious singer, much as he had done with the school choir, but Muq nervously remained in the shadows. During one of his roaming concerts, he made a discovery that changed his life as much as We Are the World did. “One evening I was walking and singing and I heard someone playing an instrument. It sounded familiar, but also new. Two men were out in their yard performing songs for church, and I just sat there and watched. I was 18 or 19 years old, and this was my first time to see a guitar in my life. I had seen them on TV, of course, but seeing one in person was different. When I saw it, it just made sense to me. When I held it, it just made sense. It knew that this was going to answer so many questions I had about music and the western world. I asked if I could come back tomorrow and whenever else they were playing.”
Muq taught himself to play guitar on his new friend’s instrument, eventually borrowing it for a regular gig at a local hotel. Even after a long shift, he would walk home playing and singing, and a video of him serenading homeless children on the streets of Kampala led to a stint as an entertainer on Norwegian Cruise Line. That experience not only refined his repertoire but helped him secure a passport and visa. “They saw the video and asked me if I wanted to sing on a boat. But this like a city on the water. I couldn’t believe it would float. My friends thought the pictures I showed them had been Photoshopped.” He admits there was no grand plan to his career, no strategy or roadmap. “I never expected it to work this way. I never said, I’m going to get a job at a hotel. I’m going to get a job on a cruise line. I’m going to work with Dan Auerbach. Everything happened because I was following sound. I was chasing it. I was just singing.”
On the seas and later in America, he developed a curious approach to writing songs. “I don’t sit down and say, I’m going to write a song now. Most times someone will be talking to me and I’m playing the guitar at the same time. For some reason my brain can listen to both things at the same time, and I’ll come up with a melody or a phrase or just an idea. It’s amazing how many songs I’ve written when someone else is talking and I’m just holding my guitar. Even in the studio with Dan, we would be talking about songs or just hanging out, and I would be playing my guitar and coming up with new songs.” That’s how he wrote many of the songs on his upcoming debut, including the plaintive, yet hopeful, “One You Love.” “I wanted to have a relationship with someone, but it didn’t work out. This song describes how someone has brought something great into your life, even if they don’t stay in your life. It was not a happy experience, but that didn’t stop me from writing something positive. I wrote it and sang it very slow, but Dan said it could be quick and dancey. It sounds great that way.”
Muq currently calls Austin home, but he’s on the road more than he’s in Texas, touring frequently and bringing his sunny songs to audiences of all kinds. “When I arrived in America, I was coming from a different part of the world, and I was very lost. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what was coming tomorrow. I just following instinct. I always thought, If I can communicate with people through music, it will make me feel like I am not alone. I can speak to people very intimately using music.”