May 29, 2015


Africa

Multi-instrumentalist hasn't Mis-ed a beat

He's living his dream, teaching, making music

Gentil Mis didn't learn to play guitar with his feet to impress people, he learned to play the instrument in case he lost his hands.

The talented 23-year-old and his family were constantly pursued after fleeing the war in Congo, so he taught himself to play the guitar with his feet in the event of a tragedy where his hands or arms wer e chopped off, or even made useless from disease.

"Being in those countries, fleeing all the time, not sure on what's going to happen tomorrow, (I thought) 'I'm not going to play forever. What happens if my hand becomes....'" he says with a laugh, making his hand go limp.

He can laugh about it today, but growing up in the war-torn region is nothing to joke about. Mis was born Gentil Misigaro in what was known as Zaire in 1988 but left the country in the mid 1990s with his parents, five siblings and his father's two brothers and sister during what is known as the First Congo War, a conflict which claimed the life of his father's parents.

They lived in Rwanda for several years before moving back to their home city of Bakavu in the newly established Democratic Republic of Congo when Mis was 12. The Second Congo War forced the family to move to Uganda in 2005, where they lived as refugees in the capital city of Kampala before moving to Winnipeg two years ago.

It was in Uganda where Mis went from dabbling in music to becoming serious about his playing, performing and producing.

His father, a teacher and musician who still performs with his family today, first taught Mis to play guitar as a child. He lost interest in the instrument, but picked it up again as a teenager and also decided to learn the piano despite not having a piano.

Mis learned the basic keyboard chord fingerings from drawings and snuck into a church to practice. He didn't know any music theory, so he walked four hours to meet a man who taught him the basic I-IV-V progression that forms the core of many popular rock, blues and pop songs.

"He didn't know much. It was only about five minutes and he showed me one, four, five, Do Re Me Fa So La Ti Do, then I walked back," Mis says, smiling.

He joined a band, and instead of being paid he asked to borrow the leader's computer to learn how to use recording software. He demonstrated his new-found knowledge during a trip to see how a professional recording studio worked and landed a job as an in-house producer recording hit singles played on Ugandan radio stations.

He became an in-demand producer working at three different studios while studying music at university, but there was no stability for his family who were forced to move regularly to avoid being discovered by forces out to eradicate his Nyamulenge tribe. The constant threat of attack meant Mis and his family would never be safe in the region and were selected by the government and the United Nations to move to Canada.

He and his family arrived in Winnipeg on Feb. 17, 2010 and were thrust immediately into frigid winter.

Not that they minded.

"Imagine: I woke up that morning and everything was beautiful. It was my first time seeing snow. Everything was white out there. I was like, 'Is this how heaven is going to be? It's so beautiful,'" Mis says during an interview at an Elmwood studio.

In Winnipeg he spread the word that he was a musician looking to play and was invited to perform at a benefit for Tanzania followed by a another for Ethiopia.

Mis can speak nine languages, including French, English, Swahili and his first, Kinyamulenge, and was told he could get a job in a call centre, but refused. Music was his dream. He wanted to teach and rented a space downtown despite not having enough money to pay the first two months rent until eight students were registered.

He achieved his goal, paid his rent and was put in touch with the Canadian Centre for Refugee Employment who helped provide funding for his debut album, A Better Home, with his band Exile.Z.

Today he is proficient on six instruments, teaches at Mar-Schell's Music, works at an Elmwood recording studio producing other artists and is recording a series of singles to be released under the name Gentil.

His music is a mixture of pop, dance, R&B, soul and world music preaching a positive message of forgiveness, hope and peace, something he says he would be killed for promoting if he lived in Uganda or Congo.

"Since I lived in countries of war I decided to make my music more about education rather than about business," he says. "To be able to bring change. To be able to support others. To speak for people who can't speak for themselves. To encourage others and raise awareness of what's going on in the world. Music should be something passionate to the soul, to transform. Something pure, not to fight or abuse. Not to destroy kids' minds and people's cultures. It should be to strengthen that. That's why by having good music hopefully it's there to inspire people to strengthen their culture and make a change."

Mis's peaceful musical crusade and inspirational story earned him an arts award at last year's CCRE Gratitude Gala where Exile.Z performed. His next live show is a solo appearance Thursday at Gordie's Coffee House, located at Gordon King Church, 127 Cobourg Ave. He is trying to organize a larger concert with his band and family in the next two months, something he couldn't even dream of a few years ago.

And if he plays the guitar with his feet, it's just for fun.

"I'm glad I'm in a place I can focus on the future," he says. "The community is amazing and friendly. I'm glad I came to Winnipeg. People have the same heart as what I have."

rob.williams@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2012 D3

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