“When I was twelve years old, I moved to the countryside to live with my grandparents,” says Ugandan musician and refugee Samite. “While I was there, a purple, red, blue, and yellow lizard called embalasasa surfaced all over the country. It was so beautiful it begged to be touched, but it was poisonous. Whenever an embalasasa came into the house, we all climbed on top of a table and called my grandfather to come and kill it. We knew we were safe as long as grandpa was around; he used his walking cane to protect us.”
Embalasasa is the name of Samite’s new CD released by Triloka Records on March 14, 2006. “On the title song, I call my grandpa to come with his walking cane and kill the modern embalasasa, AIDS, a deadly disease transmitted through the most beautiful, vibrant and natural act,” explains Samite. The album’s songs draw upon Ugandan folklore, geography, and struggle to express words of allegory, healing, and hope. In addition to AIDS, his curative songs address war, intolerance, the death of a loved one, and survival. Samite is a survivor.
In 1982 after his brother was slain due to his political views, Samite fled Uganda—a place where “the fruit is sweeter than any other place in the world”—and spent a period in a Kenyan refugee camp and traveling around Africa before making his way to Ithaca, New York, where he lives now. “My music has allowed me to express myself during difficult times and happy times through the years,” says the exiled musician.
Samite is committed to sharing the medicinal power of music with children in need in Africa. On his return voyage to Uganda in 1997, with a documentary team filming the PBS documentary Song of a Refugee, he stopped in Liberia, Ivory Coast and Rwanda to see for himself if the dismal picture of these countries painted by the western media was accurate. He found that in spite of staggering losses of human life and devastation, the survivors of Liberia’s civil war, Rwanda’s genocide, and decades of civil strife in Uganda were full of hope and caring for themselves and each other with great resourcefulness and dignity. Inspired by this experience, he founded Musicians for World Harmony (MWH), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting peace through the healing power of music. MWH’s mission is to enable musicians to share their music to promote peace, understanding, and harmony among peoples, with a special emphasis on helping the displaced.
Samite brings his music to refugee camps and to orphanages for children with AIDS and children whose parents have died of AIDS. He works with organizations that are helping child soldiers get back on their feet after escaping warlords. “Every minute I spend with these children brings me energy and joy,” he says. “These are kids who have been pushed all the way down, yet somewhere deep down they still have dreams and hope. When I go there and play music with them, I see their spirits uplifted and am able to show them that things can get better.”
“When it comes to the healing power of music, it becomes a personal thing for me,” says Samite, who lost his wife of twenty years to cancer. “When my wife was sick and she could not talk, I was able to reach her soul and soothe it with just a song from the kalimba. She would relax without having to take a sleeping pill or a pain killer.”
The kalimba, or “thumb piano,” is the soul of Samite’s music. He collects kalimbas, which have different names in different regions, but are found all over the African continent. The kalimba functions as a soothing heartbeat that transcends language and cuts straight to the core. But Samite has picked up many other elements along the path. The soundtrack of his life has ranged from the songs of the musicians entertaining the King in his Mengo palace near Kampala—where Samite would stop every afternoon on his way home from school to eavesdrop—to traditional Ugandan music, as well as Motown, Barry White, and the Beatles. But his earliest musical influence comes from his mother, who played music literally connected to his homeland.
“My mother played an instrument that she would build,” remembers Samite. “In order to make the instrument, she dug a hole in the ground and covered it with a metal plate. We tied a string to the plate and ran it along a branch of a tree. As my mother plucked the string, the ground sang.”
“Since I was young, I always paid attention to how songs always started with one instrument playing a part that others would build on,” he explains. On “Embalasasa,” the kalimba is joined by madinda (xylophone) and flute, an instrument common across Ugandan musical traditions. “It cuts through the drums and the singing and it soars on top like a bird making sure there is peace in the area,” Samite explains. “For me, the flute is an instrument of peace. I play it in areas where people don’t understand my language and I immediately make friends.” Piano, guitar, and percussion round out the foundation over which Samite’s vocals dance and play.
Samite’s latest album, Embalasasa, returns him to his homeland, to his roots, to the very ground that shook with his mother’s plucking, and to the vivid memories of his childhood, connecting the past to the present. “At times I feel I was chosen by the creator to bring this music to people. I don’t own it, I just share it,” concludes Samite. “Embalasasa is a reflection of where I am in my life right now. It is warm, happy, and adventurous. If this were a painting, the colors would be bold.”