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World Music Features

Samite

By Christina Roden
Published June 1, 2006

Ugandan singer/poet/multi-instrumentalist Samite, having already survived political exile and the untimely passing of his beloved wife, has now dedicated himself to a secular healing mission in Africa, combating AIDS with unflinching frankness, sensitivity and hope. This gifted and unselfish man is an inspiring role model whose music, with its warmth, tenderness and passion, is capable of raising the most profoundly wounded spirits.

Samite Mulondo, once forced to flee his cherished homeland into political exile, now returns there regularly as part of his own charitable organization, Musicians for World Harmony (MWH). Having dedicated his life to healing through music, his travels take him wherever he can bring comfort with his beloved kalimbas (thumb pianos,) flutes and percussion, plus a warmly caressing, supple tenor voice that stretches into a soaring, unearthly falsetto reminiscent of Aaron Neville, Milton Nascimento and Vusi Mahlasela.

Samite was born into a socially prominent family in Kampala, Uganda. The sensitive boy was deeply drawn to the music he heard performed at the king’s palace, where he went to school, but his tough-minded father forbade his pursuing it as a livelihood. After one of his brothers was tortured and killed under the Idi Amin regime, Samite escaped to Nairobi, Kenya, where he comforted himself with various musical endeavors, such as exploring his spiritual link with the kalimba.

He also met his future wife, an American teaching in Nairobi. The couple relocated to Ithaca, New York, where Joan Mulando was affiliated with a local university. Encouraged by his wife, Samite sought and ultimately found his voice as a composer and his career began to gather steam. In 1997, during a bittersweet trip home accompanied by a documentary crew; he made peace with his father, but was horrified to find so many of his already impoverished countrymen succumbing to AIDS, leaving thousands of orphaned children to fend for themselves. With Joan’s enthusiastic support, he decided to form Musicians for World Harmony, but was obliged to put everything on hold during his wife’s protracted struggle with cancer and subsequent death. He channeled his grief into his 2003 album, Tunula Eno, and then set about picking up the interrupted threads of his private and public lives.

The title of Samite’s latest release, Embalasasa (Triloka), refers to a jewel-like but deadly lizard that, despite its tempting beauty, must never, ever be touched. It’s a scarily apt metaphor for the AIDS virus, which is so often spread via a combination of irresistible impulse and failure to take precautions. But other tracks reflect the artist’s vibrant plans for the future.

“I think the biggest difference between my past albums and this one is that I am more mature in my approach, I am more open to new ideas and more adventurous than I have been in the past,” Samite asserts. “I made this music to please myself, to express how I feel about life now. I focused on three instruments: the voice, the flute and the kalimba. In doing so, I was able to dedicate more time to each instrument and discover what the instruments had to offer. In addition, I expanded the reach of the instruments by using technology. In ‘Nawe Okiwulira,’ the kalimba is playing many parts, including the bass. If you listen to the last track, ‘Setula,’ you might think you are hearing an organ, but it’s the kalimba

Embalasasa also showcases new collaborations and a relaxed, trusting bandleader. “I allowed the other band members to experiment and expand,” he says. “For example, the percussionist Jeff Haynes had always wanted to try other instruments, but I limited him to what I wanted to hear. This time, he had the freedom to try out all of his instruments and we ended up using many of them in the final tracks.”

Singer Angela Kalule provided additional transformations. “I had to go all the way to Uganda to find Angel,” Samite recalls. “For the first time, I wanted to use other voices instead of singing all the parts, so I asked my record company to hold the release date so I could continue working on the project in. I first heard Angela on her latest CD. When I met her, she was expecting her first baby, so I was concerned that she was not going to be able to deal with the many hours needed in the studio. Well, I was wrong—she had<