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World Music Features

Samite

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published September 1, 2005

Ugandan expatriate Samite turns personal grief into soulful, introspective music on Tunula Eno, his newest album.



Afropop

Read reviews of previous recordings by Samite and you invariably come across words like tranquil, mellifluous, peaceful and introspective. They all still apply—there are no rough edges to Tunula Eno (Triloka/Artemis), the latest release by the Ugandan expatriate who now resides in upstate New York.

            But the record’s hypnotic quietude—the artist formerly recorded for the new agey Windham Hill label—should not be confused with sleepiness: Tunula Eno brims with life and soul, a quality made all the more remarkable when it’s learned that Samite pieced it together it while his wife Joan was dying of brain cancer. The music, Samite explains in his liner notes, “was a healing power for both of us,” and the positivity of his statement permeates the work. Tunula Eno is anything but mournful—rather, it’s one of the most exultant and spiritual-sounding recordings in recent memory.

            Samite has always sought to emphasize the upbeat. Having fled Uganda following the bloody reign of dictator Idi Amin, Samite eventually settled in the United States, releasing his first album, Dance My Children, Dance, on Shanachie in 1988. Subsequent releases have furthered his reputation and refined his style, but Tunula Eno may be his most rewarding—and most accessible—yet.

Its 14 tracks—most written by Samite, others traditional songs he’s rearranged—span the topical gamut.

          Samite, in his gentle yet engaging voice, addresses motherhood, childhood, the gravity of political power and, on the bluesy, serene title track, the near-telepathic communication he experienced with his wife as she lost her ability to speak: “I tell Joan that for each bird in the world,” he writes, “there is another bird that loves it. The birds in our world are named Joan and Samite.” Another song for Joan, the album closer, “Dawaya Mwoyo,” is a fragile lullaby, Samite serenading his ailing soulmate, accompanying himself on kalimba, one of the three instruments he plays on the album (the others being flute and marimba).

Tunula Eno is not without levity though. “Mwatu,” on which Samite is joined by a bevy of keyboardists, bassists and percussionists, offers a commentary on marriage and cultural differences: Where he comes from, he explains, a suitor must impress a woman’s family by promising to bring meat to the table; in his adopted home, “where everyone is a vegetarian,” sprouts and tofu make more of a splash.

         As his words are not sung in English, many of Samite’s potential fans may fail to grasp the poignancy and good-hearted humanity of his tales. But none should have trouble falling under his spell.