Samite brings his diverse musical talents to Carnegie Lecture Hall Saturday.
By Manny Theiner
Samite Mulondo, known simply as Samite (pronounced sah-mee-tay), is a mesmerizing singer-songwriter from Uganda who performs on a multitude of African instruments such as the wooden flute, litungu (Kenyan harp) and kalimba (classic African thumb piano).
But unlike the famed Congolese band Konono #1, he doesn't roam the megalopolis pumping his kalimbas through huge distortion-filled sound systems. Samite's musical approach is a bit gentler, garnering him eight albums on folk labels such as Shanachie and Xenophile and New Age bastion Windham Hill. He's also graced African music compilations on Putumayo and Narada, safe enough for the average Whole Foods shopper.
A member of the Baganda ethnic group for which his country is named, perhaps his peaceful demeanor is a result of fleeing the horrible violence of Idi Amin's rule. "He killed a lot of people, and [his successor] Milton Obote killed even more," he recalls. "I come from a very large family and my dad had many children. My older brother was my main mentor, so when he was kidnapped and killed, I left and moved to Kenya."
Finding his way to the United States, Samite eventually settled in Ithaca, N.Y., where he met and married his wife, Sandra. His most unique experience in that quiet college town was singing for the Dalai Lama's visit. "It took me by surprise because I didn't realize how powerful it was going to be. When I was finished, I was overwhelmed by his presence when I saw him bowing."
Samite isn't quite as reverential. In his appearance at the Frick Art and Historical Center four years ago, he was with a trio, but for his Calliope concert at Carnegie Lecture Hall this Saturday, it'll just be him and Grammy-winning guitarist David Cullen. "I do a lot of performing with [Mr. Cullen], and it's a more intimate setting. We still get people dancing, but the audience gets to know me, rather than just jumping up and down."
Among other topics, the crowd will hear about Musicians for World Harmony, which Samite founded to bring musical healing to troubled regions in Africa. "I just came back last week from Uganda, where we opened a center in Soroti, organized through the Berklee College of Music. People who have gone through extreme trauma, like a woman who was raped or a child solider, will be able to get music therapy. We help people sing again who've gone through trouble and war. It's the beginning of a healing process -- you can see their eyes smiling as they think about the future, and it opens them up."
Samite is the first to admit his homeland could use a bit of opening up: homosexuality is punishable by death. On his 2006 CD "Embalasasa," the title track mentions a lizard with a lethal bite -- an allusion to the AIDS epidemic. "There's a lot of education people need, [including] how to avoid AIDS," he says. "During the last Bush administration, [Uganda] was not allowed to use aid money to buy condoms. There was an attitude that it was like contraception, encouraging people to have sex, when actually it really helps reduce the spread of the disease. We need to keep pushing for that acceptance."
Samite also is concerned with the African environment and its wildlife. He composed the soundtrack for "Taking Root," a documentary about Nobel Peace Prize winning Kenyan tree-planter Wangari Maathai ("when you hear her story, you realize how strong and inspiring she was"), contributed music to films about the global water crisis, the tobacco industry, and Jane Goodall, and has a second career as photographer, taking photos of Central Africa's approximately 700 remaining mountain gorillas.
"The few times that I've visited [the gorillas], I found the park rangers are serious about what they're doing. You're not allowed to spend more than an hour with [the gorillas]. In certain parts of the Congo, there's still a lot of work to be done. So whenever I perform, I talk about them, show images, and try to encourage people to visit as tourists so that money can come in for donations."
With everything else going on in Africa, Samite is also concerned about the sheer noise pollution of the big cities. He's not against hip-hop per se, but regards its current influence as detrimental to the younger generation in Uganda and neighboring countries. "There are all these guys with big speakers on pickup trucks playing the same song everywhere, based on zouk and hip-hop combined. It's eating up all the young people who try to be rap musicians, wearing their pants down low showing their underwear, and forgetting about the beautiful culture of Ugandan music. It's kind of sad."
Yet at the same time, Samite sees a counter-trend with voices like his friend Mr. Kirya and the soulful Benon Mugumbya speaking up for more interesting, worldly sounds. And although his artistry has been described by critics as "soothing," "organic" and "lullaby-like," he's never tried to present a sedating atmosphere as a concession to his more upscale American audiences. "I never went out of my way to please someone other than myself. The mood I'm trying to convey is just what I get inspired to write -- people find it and connect with it. It just ends up being that I'm kind of a mellow guy."
is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. First Published February 23, 2012 5:00 AM