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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 17, 2000. All rights reserved.

Music from a Ravaged Land: Samite

E-mail: ElaineStrauss@princetoninfo.com

With his musical outlook developed amidst the terror

of dictatorships and violence in Africa, Ugandan musician Samite (pronounced

Sah-mee-tay) stresses brotherhood and peace. Witness to political

assassination and the shrunken world of refugee camps, he has transformed

his experiences of horror into an upbeat approach that is at the same

time personal, universal, and highly musical. Samite appears at Barnes

& Noble in Marketfair on Friday, May 19, at 8 p.m.

Samite’s fifth and latest album, from Windham Hill, is entitled "Stars

to Share." Samite is composer and featured vocalist for all 12

songs. And the directness of his voice goes in a straight line from

his vocal chords to the listener’s heart.

In about half of the selections on "Stars to Share" Samite

performs on the kalimba, a hand-held African instrument played by

plucking metal strips mounted on a wooden board. In one he plays flute.

"Stars to Share" is the result of Samite’s first ever collaboration

with western composers. Guest artists include guitarist Will Ackerman,

singer Patti Cathcart, bassist Michael Manring, and pianist Phil Aaberg.

Samite points out that using kalimba backed up by western instruments

is a novel feature of the new CD. An African stress on rhythm layers

distinguishes the recording. The familiar aggressive entrance of keyboards

is also there.

Samite singles out "Bring Back the Music" as the most important

song of the album. "In it," he says in a telephone interview,

"I say, `Let’s get rid of the guns and bring back the music.’

I say, `Let the children sing and dance.’" The piece is sung in

Luganda, the language of Samite’s Bagandan people, as are three other

songs on the recording. Unfortunately, no texts accompany the album.

Samite was performing in South Africa when the recording company decided

to omit the words. "I love telling people what the music is about,"

says Samite.

Now 43, Samite was born in Mengo, a suburb of Kampala,

Uganda, in 1957. His time and place of birth appear to be unremarkable.

However, when we move on to the number of his siblings, I check that

I’ve heard him right. With no noticeable emphasis, Samite has, indeed,

said that he has 50 siblings. Fifty! "My father just loves children,"

he notes.

"Quite a few wives were involved," he says. "The mothers

lived in different places. But one mother was responsible for all

the kids. It was a very tight family. We got together all the time.

Everybody cares about everybody. And we all look alike. There’s a

big age range among the kids. It’s an extended family, and some of

the kids live with relatives in different places. In Uganda it’s normal

for a child to move around. Where a relative has no children, a person

with many kids could lend children to that relative; I spent a lot

of time with my grandparents."

From his grandfather Samite learned to play the traditional bamboo

flute. Kalimba, the instrument he plays on the CD, was his second

instrument. He learned to play the western flute while he was in high

school. Samite’s musical background incorporated both traditional

African and western elements.

"Africa has moved on," he says. "In an African city, there

are all kinds of western instruments. Young people who move to cities

and are gifted, use African rhythms and African stories, but play

electric guitars, basses, and keyboards. I grew up listening to Motown."

Because Samite’s father was the general manager of a major British

insurance company in Uganda, he started school in the king’s palace

in Mengo, where royal musicians played for the monarch. After an attack

by Idi Amin in 1966 the king fled into exile and the palace was turned

into a barracks. At that time Samite thought of becoming a professional

flutist. His father objected.

"He thought it would be embarrassing to have his son blowing a

whistle," Samite says. "In Uganda, and even here, musicians

get free food, free booze, and free women, and he didn’t want me to

live that kind of a life style. He wanted me to be an accountant."

Samite grew up in an environment of political dictatorship and violence.

Dictator Amin held power for eight years before being forced into

exile in 1979, and was succeeded by dictator Obote in the early 1980s.

Political opposition was widespread, and the autocratic heads of state

maintained their power by annihilating their opponents. "A lot

of people were being massacred," Samite says. "My older brother,

with whom I spent a lot of time, was beaten up and taken by soldiers.

He was tortured and killed. I was afraid that I would be the next."

The year was 1982.

Samite fled to Kenya. "It was the closest country that I could

go to without applying for a visa," he says. "What you had

to do was just take one bag, and look as if you were coming back."

After four months in a refugee camp Samite obtained papers to work

in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. "Kenya was where I started playing

traditional music," he says. "In Uganda I did western music.

As a refugee in Kenya I started missing home, and I began to remember

what I learned at the king’s palace. I had time. When you’re a refugee,

you’re like a prisoner. The only alternative is to go back and die.

You start to remember any thing that would [mentally] take you back

home. You draw on what you know to survive the refugee situation.

I was surprised that I knew that much."

Once permitted to work in Nairobi, Samite played with the Bacchus

Club Jazz Band, the African Heritage Band, and eventually soloed with

the Mount Kenya Safari Club. His instruments were kalimba, litungu

— a Kenyan harp "given to me by very old man I met in Nairobi"

— madinda, which is an African xylophone, saxophone, and flute.

The kalimba, the small instrument with its metal keys featured on

Samite’s new CD, has become an important presence in his life. The

instrument is known by different names in different parts of Africa.

More than 20 years ago it drew the attention of ethnomusicologist

Paul Berliner, who wrote about it, using its Zimbabwan name, "mbira."

In his book, "The Soul of Mbira," Berliner says, "The

mbira’s sound has a special presence; one feels the music as much

as one hears it. Its sound is penetrating and warm at the same time."

"The structure of the kalimba varies, depending on who’s making

it," says Samite. "In one village in Liberia, it has only

two keys. In some areas it has 32 keys. I have 20 kalimbas. They have

eight, four, or ten keys. Which kalimba I use depends on my mood,

and what song I want to work on. The tuning is not standardized. It

depends on how long the keys are. I love building my own kalimbas,

but the 20 I collected were built by others." Even more significant

than the varying structure of the kalimba is the purpose for which

it is used. In Zimbabwe, Samite says, the instrument is used for healing

and calling on spirits.

Samite met his future wife, an American, originally from Utah, in

Nairobi, shortly after leaving the Kenyan refugee camp. She was teaching

at an American school. The couple now lives in Ithaca, New York. They

have no children. Samite’s two children from previous relationships

are now both in college, one in South Africa, and one in Uganda.

Samite and his wife had no intention of coming to America originally.

They left Kenya in 1987. "I came to feel unsafe in Nairobi,"

Samite says. "I thought that people were following me, and I didn’t

know who they were. I had already performed in the United States.

I came as a visitor, but I knew I was not going back."

The transition to America was not easy. Samite confronted bureaucrats

and his own psychological scars. "It was a painful experience,

trying to explain to the immigration guys that you’re in danger. They

say that you will be protected if you return, but they don’t know

what they’re talking about. Here they believe that the policeman is

your friend and that if you get lost the policeman will help."

Samite stayed in New York City for four months before moving to Ithaca.

"In New York," he says, "I saw masks of Reagan, sold on

the street, and I would run upstairs so nobody could see me laughing

at them. I thought I might be imprisoned or killed."

Samite relishes his time in upstate New York. "I enjoy the woods,

the gorges and rivers, and riding mountain bikes. It’s a beautiful

place to write music."

Collaborating with independent producer-director Glenn Ivers, Samite

returned to Africa in the summer of 1997 to make a PBS documentary,

"Song of the Refugee." In stops at refugee camps in Liberia,

Cote d’Ivoire, Rwanda, and Uganda, he discovered, almost inadvertently,

the power of music to dissolve barriers, to solidify contacts among

people, and to provide spiritual strength.

Samite’s charisma as he made the PBS documentary charmed children,

old people, and whole villages at a time. "In Soroti, Uganda,"

he says, "I asked for kalimba players and the entire village gathered.

I asked where I could buy an instrument and I thought it was a terrible

mistake because everybody wanted me to buy theirs. I ended up buying

15 kalimbas. I felt guilty about taking away the instruments. But

an old woman in the village said it was a good thing, that I was bringing

money to the village, paying dollars, and that the villagers would

make new instruments."

Arriving in Kampala in time for a memorial service at the cathedral

for his slain brother, Samite took out his flute and offered a musical

prayer. For the first time his father heard him perform. Tears came

to his eyes and he asked Samite to bring the flute along when he came

to visit. "That moment made me complete," Samite says, "to

know my father supports my music."

Samite uses the Internet to reach out internationally. His website

is www.samite.com. On the site you’ll find the Luganda word

"mirembe." It means "peace" in his native language.

— Elaine Strauss

Samite, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, 609-897-9250.

Friday, May 19, 8 p.m.

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