Savoring the sweet spot

It’s the place from which Samite‘s music rises, allowing him to connect with others to bring both joy and healing.

By Naila Francis

There are artists who when they talk about their music may mention a certain influence, a derivative style that affects what they create. They may talk about instrumentation, bordering on esoteric specificity, as they deconstruct a song to trace the evolution of their process. Their descriptions may be effusive, inflated, expansive.

Not so with Samite.

The Ugandan artist speaks with a simple sincerity when he talks about the music he makes, stirring soundscapes anchored by intricate arrangements on the kalimba, or thumb piano, and the evocative sweetness of the flute, his hushed, soulful tones blending both the traditional and the ambient in swirling melodies that soothe and uplift.

Yet despite the subtle complexity of his compositions, the artist who forgoes his last name of Mulondo says his music is based on a simple premise.

“It touches that child in us,” he says. “It’s about trying to find that joy you had when you were a kid. I just kind of find a sweet spot and stay in that sweet spot for a long time, as opposed to trying to sound sophisticated. That’s the magic.”

Given the sentimentality of such expression, it is no wonder then that Samite, who performs April 20 at Sellersville Theater 1894, has a profound connection with children — one that has served as his greatest inspiration in his championing of music as a healer.

For the last several years, the Ithaca, N.Y., resident has been traveling through Africa, bringing music’s medicinal power to children who have been worn down by the harsh realities — war, poverty and disease — of their existence. It was in fact during a return trip to Uganda in 1997 — he fled the country to a refugee camp in Kenya in 1992 after his brother was slain for his political views before eventually making his way to New York — that Samite realized the impact of a song. He was filming a PBS documentary, “Song of a Refugee,” when he stopped at one of the refugee camps in Rwanda.

“There were children who had just come back from hiding in the bushes with their parents and many people were dying in that camp,” he says. “I just looked at some of those kids and I said that day to the director, ‘I don’t think I can sing in this place. There is so much suffering. I don’t think I can handle it.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry. Let’s go home and maybe tomorrow things will be different.’ When I came back the next day, I found just one child sitting there, but the look on his face once I started singing was amazing. He just opened up. Soon, I had 20 kids around me, and that’s when I realized that this was what I had to do. I was touching their souls.”

It was after that trip that Samite, who also performs April 30 through May 6 at the Philadelphia International Children’s Festival at the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia, founded Musicians for World Harmony. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to bringing the healing power of music to the displaced and the distressed, enabling musicians throughout the world to bring their messages of peace to as wide an audience as possible. Samite is particularly interested in working with refugee camps and orphanages for children with AIDS and children whose parents have died of AIDS, as well as organizations helping child soldiers who have escaped their warlords.

His most recent album, “Embalasasa,” released on Tuesday, captures both the hope and despair of some of those encounters, while drawing on Ugandan folklore, geography and his own childhood memories and personal experiences with suffering — including the loss of his wife of 20 years to cancer — to make his entreaty for peace. The album’s title is a metaphor for the disease that continues to ravage much of Africa, “Embalasasa” being a reference to a beautiful but deadly lizard found in the Ugandan countryside.

“That lizard that came at a time when I was young and living with my grandparents was so beautiful that you wanted to touch it, just like sex is so beautiful that you want to touch it, but in that part of world, it’s poisonous, just like the embalasasa,” says Samite. “There are so many people in Africa and all over the world who are dying of AIDS. I keep going back to the children, but there are so many orphans these days who have lost their parents and the thing about these orphans that I’ve met, the world has given up on them, but they have dreams of becoming something in their lives. And with the medicine they’re getting, now some of them have a better chance of going to school and making something of themselves. Their life is just beginning. And the world needs to pay attention to that. I’m just bringing awareness to AIDS.”

Throughout his music, he maintains that the fight, for healing and for unity, is never a solitary one. One of the album’s more poignant tracks, “Not Alone,” speaks to child soldiers returning home from war.

“Any young person who’s made to fight a war and to kill, in most cases, they feel that they’re doing it for the good of the nation,” says Samite. “People need to realize that these young people are damaged, their souls are damaged. They’re made to do things that are not human, and if you’re trained to do that, how do you go back to being that sweet person that you used to be? This song is telling them, ‘You’re not alone, we can help you.’ ”

Samite did not always have such a purposeful relationship with music, but it has always been essential to him. As a boy, he would listen as his mother plucked the strings of a homemade instrument, and it was his grandfather who taught him to play the traditional flute before a high school teacher in Kampala introduced him to the western version of the instrument. Much of his early exposure to music also came from his daily ritual of stopping by the king’s Mengo palace on his way home from school, where he would listen to the royal musicians entertaining the monarch in his courtyard.

“I remember times when I’d be in the streets and I would hear the police marching band around the corner, and you could never figure out where exactly they were coming from. And I would run and my heart would be beating so fast, I’d be almost having a heart attack from the excitement of running around and trying to figure out where the song was coming from,” says Samite. “Music always affected me in a strong way.”

But with everyone on his dad’s side of the family an accountant, it was not considered acceptable for him to become a professional musician — a difficult decision he made with the encouragement of the woman who would become his wife.

“My girlfriend said, ‘You should do what your heart tells you. Don’t do things because of what other people tell you to do.’ That was a big thing to say because I was not going to please my dad and be an accountant.”

But every time he sees the smiles, hears the stories and dreams and meets the animated eyes of children eager to share in his songs, he knows he made the right choice.

“The joy they feel, they pump it into you,” says Samite. “When they hug you when you’re leaving, when they write to you, when you turn them from this sadness and you make them happy, that stays longer in you than if you perform on stage and have people screaming for you — and you want to do it again.”

– The Intelligencer


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