Samite began studying music with his grandfather as a child in Uganda, and he was on track to become a major force in Ugandan music.
And then politics intervened. Regional ethnic conflicts forced the musician to flee his homeland, and in 1982 Samite entered Kenya as a political refugee. Five years later, he immigrated to the United States, where he's established himself as one of the preeminent African musicians working in America. He's also drawn on his difficult experiences as a refugee to create Musicians For World Harmony, an organization dedicated to bringing music to distressed and displaced populations.
He'll play at the Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, October 11. Here's a portion of our conversation.
NUVO: I know you play a variety of instruments including the mbira, or thumb piano. What instruments will people see you playing here during your performance?
Samite: I play several kalimbas or mbiras, which are basically different versions of the same instrument. I play the litungu which is a type of harp. I also play many different types of flutes and I sing.
NUVO: You were born in Uganda but you've spent a significant part of your life in Kenya and the United States. Do you consider your music Ugandan, or is it more an expression of all your life experiences?
Samite: It's no longer just Ugandan music. I am Ugandan and I sing in a language called Luganda. But I've been touched by so many experiences the music is not just Ugandan anymore, even though there's a lot of Ugandan influence in it. I've been to so many places and played with so many great musicians, it would be impossible to shield myself from those influences. I think that's part of the reason my music is accessible to so many people.
NUVO: In 2002 you founded Musicians For World Harmony an organization devoted to bringing music into refugee camps, orphanages and war-torn regions of the world. What inspired you to develop this organization?
Samite: I was a refugee myself at one point in my life. In the refugee camp there was a lot of loneliness. I noticed that whenever someone would sing in the camp or we had the opportunity to see a performance it would make time move faster and make sad memories go away. Sometimes it would help people remember good things.
Before I started the organization I was traveling through West Africa trying to bring music into the refugee camps. I noticed when I'd go to perform in these places it would inspire the people to start to sing again, children who'd seen their parents die, or women who were abused in the Congo. When I would go perform in the camps after singing one or two songs people would come forward and say, "We also have a song. Can we sing for you?" So I realized it was important for me to let other musicians be part of this and I created the organization to help people sing again. When people sing it gives them hope. It helps them realize that whatever they're going through in the moment, it's not going to last forever. Sharing the music can remind them of beautiful times. And even if it reminds them of someone they lost it can still give them hope. Music keeps the fire burning while they're going through the difficult times.
NUVO: Much of the work you're doing with Musicians For World Harmony is taking place in refugee camps in Africa. Do you have any programs here in the U.S.?
Samite: Yes, we work to bring music into nursing homes and senior citizen living communities. Seniors are often an abandoned group of people in the U.S. We put them away and we forget them. Our program is not just about refugees. We bring music to people who've been abandoned, or into places where spirits need to be lifted. For example in Kenya we bring music into orphanages for children born with AIDS.
NUVO: When people are suffering and experiencing these tremendous mental and physical hardships is it difficult to get them to engage with the music?
Samite: No, not at all. They are always eager. In some of the hospitals or recovery centers where I play some of the people are so sick that when I say "it's time to move our body," some of them can only move their shoulders, or their fingers or maybe even their eyebrows. But you can see them making the effort and you know you've reached them, and you're making them smile inside. I live for that moment. Sometimes they don't want to sing, or clap, but you see their foot tapping. I've found that even if they don't want to sing, the experience opens up a dialogue. The music makes them want to speak with you and share stories.
NUVO: Before establishing this organization you had a successful career as a performing artist. Have these experiences with Musicians For World Harmony changed the way you make music as an artist?
Samite: It's made me more humble. It teaches that your music is not just yours. You're here to bring it to the people.
NUVO: Finally I wanted to ask you a more general question about African music. I'm an electronic music DJ and I pay great attention to all the electronic music styles like azonto, kuduro, and kwaito that have been developing in Africa. All this new music is great but I sometimes worry that the widespread adoption of Western electronic rhythms will displace important African music traditions. As an artist who has devoted his life to studying and performing traditional African music, do these trends concern you?
Samite: That's a huge question. If you go to Uganda for example, in Kampala you'll find that people in the city are listening to a type of music where all the songs sound very similar. If you heard this music you'd swear it was all the same song, just different lyrics. But the Ugandan people get excited for this music.
Hip-hop is influencing a lot of the talented young musicians in Africa, and I think there's no way to avoid that. But I think eventually African rhythms will come to the U.S. and you'll see it being adopted here the way the Beatles adopted Indian music. We are becoming one world and I think there will be more of a back and forth influence.
I'm not so worried about it. It's sad to see the traditional music dying away, but I think you'll find that someone will bring it back in a modern way. My part in bringing traditional music forward is that I electrify all my mbiras so that I can play them really loud. I don't think the traditional music will disappear, it will just evolve and change. Some things will move forward, and some things will fade away.
A Cultural Manifesto is now available on WFYI's HD2 radio. Tune in Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 3 p.m. as NUVO's Kyle Long explores the merging of a wide variety of music from around the globe with American genres like hip-hop, jazz, and soul.