Samite Mulondo is at once a refugee and a pilgrim, a wanderer with as many homes as his music leads him to enter. He sings in a bright, sweet tenor; accompanied by his extended family of thumb pianos and percussion instruments that have come to him at different points during his travels. His demeanor is austere and remote when he is confronted with strangers one-on-one and he is unclear about their motives. Yet, he is relaxed, open, and lovable when facing huge crowds from the stage, safe within his art and protected by his beloved instruments. Up close, the latter impression turns out to be by far the more accurate one, as he tells his difficult and inspiring tale with grace, warmth and wit.
The day after his performance at The Bottom Line in New York, he sips mineral water and discusses his latest record, his fourth since he emigrated to the United States in 1982. It is called Stars to Share (Windham Hill) and he has high hopes for it. After agreeing that the recording is somewhat less percussive than the show might have led one to expect, he adds, "Well, I think when you play live with an audience, obviously you get more excitement. The drummer plays louder! But there are some songs that we're still deciding where to go with. The record is not really a departure, it's more me than anything I've ever done before. It's more singing, it's me discovering myself." His present three man combo includes a superb percussionist and a guitarist who resembles an '80s punk-rocker, but is an excellent technician and has thoroughly mastered the African musical idioms. Samite grins impishly, and explains, "His name is Emma and he's from Kansas!" He laughs, "He's lived in South Africa, he speaks Zulu, and he loves African music. He's an anthropologist ands so he just loves the cultures."
Samite's background is a long series of tragedies and triumphs. He was born into a socially prominent family and grew up in the city of Kampala, where his mother rented small housing units to itinerant workers. He was first attracted to music as a small boy, when he heard the workers living behind his house socializing and making music in the evenings. "I must have been eight or nine years old. These guys would start drinking and playing the thumb piano! Also, I would listen to the musicians entertaining the King, because the school I went to was in the King's palace." While his mother's side of the family was musical, his strong-willed father took a dim view of Samite's desire to play music. "I was hiding from my father. Of course he found out." He grimaces at the memory, " My brothers are accountants. On that side of them family, they love figures. I would see at my friends going to play music and I wanted to get out!" He did get out, but under horrible circumstances. "In Uganda, after Idi Amin, things got really terrible. My big brother was killed. They tortured him to try to get information, but he didn't give them any, so he was killed. He was only about 35. That's when I left the country."
He ended up in Nairobi, Kenya. "That's where I became a musician." he recalls, "The African Heritage Band was looking for a saxophone player. I said my saxophone was Uganda, which was a total lie! So, they interviewed me on the flute, and I joined the band." It wasn't long before the fib caught up with him. "A week after I joined the band, the bass player gave me a saxophone! I was in trouble!" he says, rolling his eyes comically. " A music teacher taught me how to blow the reed. It was sounded so bad and it was really difficult! I didn't sleep for the next four days! Every minute, I was awake, blowing that saxophone! About six days later, I could play! I faked them out for a whole year! When I told them the truth, they couldn't believe it!"
Stars to Share
The quietly haunting music of Ugandan expatriate Samite is a good match for
the atmospheric Windham Hill label. Like his compatriot Geoffrey Oryema,
Samite's music tends to be evocative, and on Stars to Share the mood evoked
is less chipper and more contemplative than some of his previous albums.
Though he sings mostly in Luganda and laces the songs with plenty of kalimba
(thumb piano), marimba, and litungu (Ugandan lute) lines, Samite also utilizes
modern keyboards and effects in creating his pensive songs. The resulting
album is virtually seamless, and in stark contrast to much of the high-power
dance music currently coming out of Central and East Africa. - Craig Tower
Though he sings mostly in Luganda and laces the songs with plenty of kalimba (thumb piano), marimba, and litungu (Ugandan lute) lines, Samite also utilizes modern keyboards and effects in creating his pensive songs. The resulting album is virtually seamless, and in stark contrast to much of the high-power dance music currently coming out of Central and East Africa. - Craig Tower
While he was still in Kenya, he met his wife, an American teaching in Nairobi. The couple settled in upstate New York and Samite set about getting himself established. In 1997, he was approached by PBS about taking part in a documentary about the plight of refugees in Africa. The team went to Liberia, Rwanda and Cote D'Ivoire, finding conditions desperate but improving. For Samite, though, the major highlight was returning to Uganda, where he was reunited with his family for the first time in fifteen years. "My father hadn't changed." he says wryly. "When he found out I was in town, he ordered me, 'You have to be at this memorial service of your brother!' So, I said, 'Can I bring my cameraman?'. When we got to the church, my dad asked me to speak." Samite asked if he could play his flute instead, and the old man reluctantly agreed. "I played the flute, and he cried!", says Samite in a wondering tone, "He'd never heard me play before. I went to visit him the following weekend and he says 'Did you bring that thing with you?' He sent a driver to bring my flute. I played for him and he started crying again! He said 'I give you my blessing and I want you to be successful'. My whole heart opened up. I didn't think I cared, but I did!"
Samite is finally at peace with his history and optimistic about the future. Asked what his experiences have taught him, he replies, "I think that the most important thing is sharing! I'm trying to do that as much as possible. I feel like I'm being used to put this music out, to sing for the poor, the sick, old people, or to talk to some sad person sitting there, or even somebody who's looking happy . All it means is giving time and it makes the world a better place!"
Samite's Web Page
Samite at Windham Hill
Hugh Tracey's recordings from Uganda
An interview with Geoffrey Oyema
More African Music on RootsWorld
© 1999 Christina Roden
Audio clip is used with the express permission of Samite and Windham Hill, © 1999
This article was originally published in Rhythm Magazine