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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 17, 2000. All rights reserved.
Music from a Ravaged Land: Samite
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,"
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,"
"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
Friday, May 19, 8 p.m.
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