A Conversation with Samite: Spreading Peace Through Music, Travel and Stories

Samite Mulondo is a multi-instrumentalist, photographer, and peacemaker who grew up on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, where his grandfather taught him how to play the flute.  After witnessing war first hand, Samite became a political refugee in Kenya before transitioning to the United States in 1987. Since then, his career has brought him all over the world, leading him to open for Ladysmith Black Mambazo on their tour for several years, starring in a PBS documentary called Song of The Refugee, giving a TED Talk, founded a nonprofit called Musicians for World Harmony, creating a one-man play called Resilience, and much more. He continues to work as an educator and creates music that heals the soul, which he will be performing at The Cedar on Wednesday, October 9th.

Samite with Flute (1).jpeg
I write music that helps people in their healing process. You can’t have hate in your heart to do the work that I do.  Carrying anger and hate will eat you up. I learned this forgiveness from Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 
— Samite

MJ Gilmore, The Cedar’s Box Office and Office Manager, interviewed Samite Mulondo through Skype from The Cedar’s Green Room as he talked from his home in New York about his inspiration, resilience, peace, healing and hope in the face of war and struggle. 

Samite TED Talk courtesy of YouTube.

MJ Gilmore: I learned your grandfather was very influential in your life while you were growing up.  Will you share with us some of your earliest memories of growing up in Uganda?

Samite Mulondo:  I grew up in Uganda in a village on the outskirts of Kampala near a green forest with monkeys and wild animals. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. I have a big family, so I had relatives all over. I would spend different times with different relatives. When I was just a little kid in my first day of school, I remember watching traditional musicians entertaining the king, Sir Edward Mutesa in his palace.

Samite performing “Bwindi Forest Bird Song,” courtesy of YouTube.

My grandfather was an amazing and very quiet man.  He somehow thought I was special. He kept on telling me that there's something about you, young man, that is very special, if only you could discover Jesus Christ, then you'd be really good!  He kept telling me that again and again! He would take me for walks and talk with me about how material things were not important and how you can be kind to other people whether they are rich or poor.  He would treat my poorer relative’s wounds the same way he would treat my wounds. My grandfather also taught me to listen and look for beautiful things, like the sounds and sights in the forest.

1966 Samite (right) with his cousin Masembe (left) and his brother Mbaba (center)

1966 Samite (right) with his cousin Masembe (left) and his brother Mbaba (center)

I believe my grandfather had mono.  Back then it was his job in the afternoon to stand and watch to make sure the monkeys did not eat my grandmother's sweet potatoes. Since my grandfather was nice and tall, the monkeys would run away! It was my job, when I was not in school, to push him on his hips up the hill so he could draw.  He loved to draw the Ugandan Namirembe Cathedral. I remember one day I was pushing him up the hill and he was taking off his jackets and sweaters. I remember complaining to him that I was pushing him up the hill and he was giving me all of his jackets and sweaters to carry. 

He had a different way of teaching me to be humble. He said maybe today you should chase the monkeys. I said that I didn't mind, because my grandfather would just stand and watch the monkeys, but did not chase them. So I waited for the monkeys, they always came at 1:00pm in the afternoon.  I was nine years old and I remember screaming and chasing after them. They ran into the forest and I remember chasing after them deep into the forest to show them there was a new serious sheriff! The biggest monkey decided to turn around. I dropped my stick to show them I was friendly, but then they all started chasing after me. I started to run and scream for help. My grandfather was nearby, as he knew what was going to happen. He just stood nice and tall and they saw that and all ran off the other way. From then on my grandfather was my hero, because he saved me from the monkeys. This experience was a way my grandfather taught me to be humble. He had many ways of teaching me to be humble.

MJ: What was your experience like living under the rule of the violent Ugandan dictator Idi Amin?

Samite: My grandfather showed me the beauty in life, but a lot of that changed when I was 14 years old and dictator Idi Amin came into power in Uganda in 1971. There was kidnapping and killing everywhere. Our parents were very terrified. It was a time that you could be shot at and lose family members and friends. I lost my big brother Richard and my step father Dr. Paul Wamala. My dad had many, many kids, so my big brother Richard was almost like my dad, because he talked to me about serious issues and he gave me spending money. I am like a dad to my younger sister right now, she calls me to talk through a lot of things. Richard told me to be serious in school. I don't think he understood music and that if you are a musician, you can't avoid it -it's a part of who you are and you wake up hearing music.

Music has helped me change people’s lives. I may not be the richest guy, but I feel satisfied that I have made a difference and continue to make a difference by playing beautiful music for people.
— Samite

He was an accountant and he thought music was a waste of time. I have seen in my life how music is not a waste of time.  Music has helped me change people's lives. I may not be the richest guy, but I feel satisfied that I have made a difference and continue to make a difference by playing beautiful music for people. I will play the flute for people and they will sing back to me. I love playing music for people who are sick who can't really move, but they can move their shoulder just a little to the rhythm of the music--I feel very lucky to experience this. So my brother Richard thought I should be an accountant like him and it was difficult for him to see that music was pulling me. I didn't blame him for wanting me to be an accountant, because at that time in Uganda, you couldn't make a living being a musician.

MJ: Did your father understand your love for music?

Samite: My father was an accountant early in his life and when I started performing out he was a general manager of a big insurance company called East African General Insurance.   He was very embarrassed when I decided to become a full-time musician. At that time I had left Uganda and was a refugee in Kenya. There was a cafe in Kenya where I would play every Saturday and people would come and expect new songs. My father heard about me playing at this cafe and was so embarrassed that the son of a general manager would be playing a whistle--he would call my flute a whistle. He thought I was embarrassing the family by playing music. 

PBS Documentary with Samite called Song of the Refugee courtesy of Vimeo.

Fast-forward to 1998 when I was performing in New York and this gentleman, Glenn Ivers, came up to me and he asked me if I wanted to go back to Africa to do humanitarian work and to shoot a documentary of the trip.  I told him yes, but I didn't want to go back to Africa, because I had been hearing the news about the massacres in Rwanda and Liberia. Glenn didn't look serious, but he actually was able to set it up with PBS to create and air a documentary called Song of the Refugee. That's when I found myself on a plane to Liberia, West Africa. It was there that I saw suffering like I had never seen before. Children who had seen their parents die. Those traumatized children didn't even blink, they had blank stares, and flies were going in and around their eyes. It was very sad. It was then that I discovered that by playing a little flute, the kids would wake up and they would start focusing again. They would get excited and pull on my shirt and ask if they could play a song for me. This happened everywhere we went, to include Rwanda where there was so much suffering. 

I felt his blessing was something that I was missing. He acknowledged that my music was not a waste of time. He said when he heard my music, it went straight to his heart.
— Samite

The whole tour ended up in Uganda. This was about the time my family was having a memorial for my brother Richard. I asked my father if I could bring the documentary film crew with me to the church. My father asked if I wanted to speak at the memorial, and I said that I wanted to play my flute. So I played my flute in the church, and my dad heard me play for the first time and he started to cry. From that time on, he would always ask me if I brought my flute when I came to visit him! He later asked me if the white documentary film crew was filming me everywhere I had traveled on this tour in Africa and I told him they were. That’s when he said that he knew I was talented from day one! He started taking credit for it!  As a musician, I was thinking I really didn't need his blessings, but when he got excited and he blessed me to bring music to people, I felt really good. I felt his blessing was something that I was missing. He acknowledged that my music was not a waste of time. He said when he heard my music, it went straight to his heart. I wish I had more time to play for him before he passed away.

MJ: Due to the intense violence in Uganda during the 1970s, was there a pivotal moment when you decided to leave?

Samite: When I was a teenager in Uganda there was a truck that would come in the middle of the night and round-up all of the teenage boys and take them someplace and see if they were rebels involved in any anti-government activities. They would brutally beat these teens up. I remember during that time the Western world economically squeezed out Idi Amin, but Idi Amin didn't suffer, it was the local Ugandan people who suffered through all of the sanctions, because Idi Amin and his henchmen could still get anything they wanted.

This happened to a lot people my age, they ended up joining the rebels and learning to kill. I knew this is not me—I could not join the culture of killing. This is when I decided to leave Uganda.
— Samite

My friend Hope and I got together and we thought what if we play music that would change the way people felt. So we decided to start a group called the Mixed Talents. Hope sang Marvin Gaye, our friend Steven sang Bob Marley, and I sang Rod Stewart. We became really popular! One day I was having my shoes polished and two police officers walked up behind me. They were looking at me and I was really worried that they were going to torture me and/or kill me like they did with my brother Richard. I thought to myself that I would use my martial arts Tae Kwon Do on them and kill them right there on the street. They could shoot and kill me, but I was not going to be taken away. The officers said my name, and I was shaking and thinking I should start attacking them, but they asked me when I will perform again with the Mixed Talents, because they had managed traffic last time we performed --they were fans.

In my mind, I was just about to join the culture of killing. In my mind I was feeling comfortable killing those guys. This happened to a lot people my age, they ended up joining the rebels and learning to kill. I knew this is not me--I could not join the culture of killing. This is when I decided to leave Uganda. When I applied to be a refugee and had an interview in Kenya, I was told by refugees who failed the interview that the government does not want to hear that I want to leave my country because my family members have been killed and that I am in danger and fear for my life. They told me the Kenyan government would not accept this and that I have to come up with a different story so I can pass.

MJ: What was it like being in a Kenyan refugee camp?

It didn’t matter who we were, in the refugee camp, we were all considered refugees. It ended up being the best life lesson for me being in that refugee camp. It showed me we are all human beings. You just survived
— Samite

Samite: I left Uganda for Kenya when I was 25 years old and found a job in a club playing the flute. Then the Kenyan government started to go after illegal immigrants.  They would round them up and drop them at the Ugandan border and that meant certain death. I was an illegal immigrant, because I came into Kenya as a visitor and then stayed there. It was at this time that I went into the refugee camp. This was a scary experience for me at first. I was brought up in a well-to-do family and in the refugee camp there were all sorts of good and bad people. It didn't matter who we were, in the refugee camp, we were all considered refugees. It ended up being the best life lesson for me being in that refugee camp. It showed me we are all human beings. You just survived. We were divided into groups of seven and there was a group of young Ugandan soldiers who immediately told me I was going to be in their group.  They knew my brother Richard whom was killed because he was an accountant who made money to help the rebels get rid of the bad dictators.

The United Nations [UN] would give the Kenyan government money to run the refugee camp and to feed the refugees, but the people running the camp would pocket a lot of this money. They would wake us up early and make us dig on very hard soil, so we could plant our own food and they would keep the money. I started to think of a way to not have have to get up early and dig. I went up to the guard and told him I could tune his french car/ Peugeot. My family ran car dealerships, like Mercedes Benz. I went to college to be an engineer, and I also learned how to put a car engine together. The guard told me he couldn't pay me and I told him that I was bored and wanted something to do. He brought me all of the car parts I asked for and sat there and watched me work on the carburetor and engine. He was so happy with my work. When it was time to go back to digging the garden, I told the guard that I could save him money by fixing the beds at the refugee camp, instead of him buying new ones. I told him that my disabled friend and I just need a small room for a workshop and some wire and pliers. This also allowed me to go over to the women's refugee camp to fix their beds, and I was able to eat some real food. The guys were in groups of seven and we would have to cook for each other and the person cooking the food would always take the first bite of food, so then everyone else would know the food wasn't poisoned.

As a funny side note, there was one small television that we all shared at the refugee camp and we only watched the news and the show Dallas--we always knew what JR was up to! Thirty some years later, I was asked to perform at a fundraiser in California and I saw JR's picture all over this house. It turns out I was in JR’s/Larry Hagman's house! If only I could tell my friends from the refugee camp!

MJ: How did you make it out of the refugee camp?

Samite: So fast-forward four months later at the refugee camp and I had a United Nations and a Kenyan government interview. The refugees helped me change my story so that I could pass the refugee interview, because the government wouldn't care that I had family killed and was in fear for my life in Uganda. My new story was that I owned an auto garage and I fixed a car owned by the rebels, but I didn't know the car was owned by the rebels. When the Ugandan army looked for cars that were owned by rebels, they saw the car in my garage and asked me who the owner of the garage is. I pointed to the office and started running away. In this interview was the guard whose french car I fixed. He vouched for my story, because I fixed his car. I passed the interviews which gave me the right to stay in Kenya and I was given a UN passport as a refugee. I could then leave the refugee camp and move to Nairobi with a work permit and I couldn't be forced back to Uganda.

MJ: Once you had your Kenyan work permit, were you able to find work as a musician?

When you are a refugee trying to survive, you think quickly!
— Samite

Samite: I joined The African Heritage band in Nairobi. They had just lost their saxophone player, so I told them that I could play saxophone, even though I couldn't! I told them that I left my saxophone in Uganda. One of the guys in the band handed me a saxophone to play, I was panicked, but I noticed it wasn't a new saxophone, so I took out some pins on it when he wasn't looking and told him it was broken and I could take it home and fix it. When you are a refugee trying to survive, you think quickly! It was around this time that I met my first wife Joann. She was an American teacher at a school in Nairobi and she said she could introduce me to a music teacher there. I learned how to play the saxophone, because the fingering is similar to playing the flute, but then I had to learn how to play all of the band's songs. About a week and a half later I went to the band to play with them and I sounded horrible! They asked me why I sounded so rough and I told them that Gato Barbieri, who played rough saxophone, was my hero! So they let me play the saxophone in the band, but I made up for it when I played the flute!

MJ: Transitioning from Kenya to the United States was a big move! What was it like moving to New York?

Samite: Joann and I fell in love, but we didn't feel safe in Nairobi, so we decided to move to New York. She said I would have a chance to play music in New York and I would feel safer there. I didn't know she meant Ithaca, NY! I didn't really feel safe as an African in New York City. I was a well-to-do kid in Uganda and people could see I was one of the elites there. So if I am leaning on a car in Uganda and the owner showed up, they would just ask me to please move so they can get in and not think I was breaking in, but this wasn't the case in New York City. I had to re-think how I was viewed in New York City. In Ithaca, this wasn't the case, everyone is very peaceful as long as you eat tofu and you know how to grow sprouts! This is how I made friends in Ithaca!

MJ: I would love to hear about your recording process in New York and your experience with Ladysmith Black Mambazo after they collaborated with Paul Simon on Graceland !


Samite: I started playing my flute around Ithaca with a backup cassette. One night a guy, Eric Cleveland, came up to me after I performed and asked what I was doing in New York and he said that we had met in Kenya at the Mount Kenya Safari Club (a famous club for wealthy people). I told him that I would like to be in a real studio and learn how to record. He said he has a friend, Alfred Grunwell, who owns a studio and could help me out.  Alfred said I could play my African instruments for students learning to record in exchange for me to learn recording. At one point he said I could record an album there, but I told him I didn't have any money, and he said not to worry, because Eric, the guy who brought me to Alfred’s studio, is wealthy and can pay for it. This first album was called Dance, My Children, Dance

After we recorded it, we wondered what we were going to do with this music.  Alfred said he would contact a guy he was in a band with who now lives in New York  City and give him my fist album. It turns out that this guy was now the manager for Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This was close to the time when they performed on Paul Simon's album Graceland. So Alfred and I drove to New York City and met Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon! They said they liked my music very much, but wanted to see if the audience liked me. So I opened for Ladysmith Black Mambazo on their tour and was getting standing ovations! I was still using a backup cassette, which was great until the audience asked for an encore and I had to rewind the cassette! I slept on the same tour bus as Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Joseph Shabalala was the band leader and he and the rest of the musicians taught me how to tour. They were extremely nice to me. It was a really great beginning to learn how to tour in the United States.

MJ: Did Pete Seeger help change the trajectory of your career?

Samite and Pete Seeger (1).jpeg

Samite: I worked with Ladysmith Black Mambazo for many years, because we shared the same manager, but after talking with Pete Seeger around 1994, I changed my manager. People told me about Pete Seeger, but it wasn't until he called me one day and we started talking, that I realized, without knowing it, I knew many of his songs! He told me that I should play for people who can't afford to pay and my music should be everywhere. So I called my manager and told him I didn't want him to represent me anymore. It was kind of a crazy thing to do, because I didn't have any money, but it felt like the right thing to do for me and my career. For my next gigs, I just put costs on a credit card. It was really tough in the beginning, but it ended up that Pete Seeger was right. I have taken my music to places where people can't afford to pay and I'm still surviving.

MJ: What was the impetus for creating your non-profit organization Musicians for World Harmony?

Samite: My non-profit organization, Musicians for World Harmony, was started in 2002 with Glenn Ivers, the same gentleman whom worked on the PBS Song of the Refugee documentary with me in 1998. It was during that documentary that I saw so many kids suffering. I played my wooden flute and soon the kids were asking if they could sing for me. The mothers would come over and start singing and later the dads would come over. It was in Rwanda where they had seen so much death. People were coming from the forests where they were hiding from the massacres of the ethnic cleansing. I could smell death and I wondered what I was doing there.

Then I noticed there was a little boy sitting right next to me. He was looking at my flute. I was wondering how I could communicate with him, because they speak French in Rwanda. I spoke to him first in my language and then Swahili and he responded in his language Kinyarwanda. So we found if we spoke a little of Swahili, Kinyarwanda and English, we were actually communicating. I asked him where his mama, papa, and friends were and he replied that they were all dead. He then ran off and I felt badly that I had asked him those questions, but he came back quickly with another boy his age and they pointed to my flute. So I started playing the flute and suddenly I had about 30 kids around me! They were singing, drumming on buckets, telling me stories and their dreams. 

Samite in Africa with People (1).jpeg

This is when I realized what Pete Seeger was talking about.  How can I bring music to someone who has experienced a traumatic life like these kids in Rwanda and help other musicians experience what I am experiencing. These kids started saying, "When the war is over, I am going to make new friends." “We left my friends behind, but mama said I will make new friends.” The mothers would tell me that the fact that I was there, makes them feel hope that the war will end. This all was the inspiration for starting Musicians for World Harmony. I still do this work and something I learned afterwards is that now after playing a few songs with the flute and kalimba, I don't have to perform for long before women make me sit down and they start singing together! These women have experienced terrible trauma. Now that we have shared music, they will share their stories. They are hungry and thirsty and have experienced so much pain, loss, embarrassment, fear, and all of the sudden music brings this light--they remember these old songs. A few hours later they will ask me to sing another song.

They are hungry and thirsty and have experienced so much pain, loss, embarrassment, fear, and all of the sudden music brings this light—they remember these old songs.
— Samite
Samite and boy with kalimba.jpeg

MJ: Have there been some world leaders who have made an impact on your life?

I write music that helps people in their healing process. You can’t have hate in your heart to do the work that I do.  Carrying anger and hate will eat you up. I learned this forgiveness from Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 
— Samite

Samite: Nelson Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995 was a brilliant and inspiring idea. It's very difficult to say I have forgiven and I am moving on and you are my friend now, even though you have done all these terrible things. I have had friends who have done something wrong to me and the pain of being angry at that person has eaten me up. The day that I forgave that person, the healing was unbelievable.  We still keep in touch and are still friends, but I know what that person is capable of doing.  I write music that helps people in their healing process. You can’t have hate in your heart to do the work that I do.  Carrying anger and hate will eat you up. I learned this forgiveness from Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Mother Teresa is inspiring and extremely special. My grandfather would also help anyone who needed help.

I have performed twice for the Dalai Lama. The first time I was backstage before the performance and I asked why everyone was crying. They told me His Holiness the Dalai Lama is coming.  I performed a song with the choir for the Dalai Lama and afterwards he was so humbly thanking me, that I started to cry. I cried for the next four days with this overwhelming feeling. 

Samite with The Dalai Lama (1).jpeg

After that I was invited to perform at The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education in Canada. I was told that I would be the musician playing music to open the whole ceremony. This conference was bringing successful business people together to see how they can work together to make the world a better place. In my mind I thought it would be an opportunity to make real money as a musician. I'm telling you everyone kept away from me, because my energy was so bad and greedy. By the end of the conference, I was wondering why people were not trying to befriend me. I wondered why I was repelling people.

So I called my wife Sandra and told her I wasn't making any connections, nobody was talking to me, and they flew in some other musician to open the ceremony. I asked her why I was even at this conference. She asked if she could tell me something that may make me angry. I told her to please go ahead, because I am feeling terrible. She said, "Can you go back to who you were, who you used to be?" "Can you go back to being like your grandfather and be giving instead of taking?" 

I learned to think about giving and contributing, and not always taking.  We can act like my grandfather and Nelson Mandela by bringing peace within ourselves and the world.
— Samite

I stopped being greedy and changed my whole attitude. I went back to the conference and everybody was taking a break, so I asked the organizers if I could play a song and they said yes. Once I started playing, everyone started to come back into the room towards the music. Then I realized that the organizers chose me to close the whole ceremony, but because of my greed, I didn't see that they wanted people to go home to my music. After I performed, many people were coming up to me to connect. So I learned to think about giving and contributing, and not always taking.  We can act like my grandfather and Nelson Mandela by bringing peace within ourselves and the world.

Samite in one-man play Resilience. Courtesy of YouTube.

I found out that human beings are so resilient. We are stronger than we think. We are built to deal with more than we think we can.
— Samite

MJ: Your song Resilience has stayed with me ever since I first heard it. It is a beautiful song that resonates with people all over the world. Resilience is the name of your recent album, title track and your one-man play. Will you describe what this song means to you?

Samite performs "Resilience." Courtesy of WNPR's Where We Live Instrument YouTube channel.

Samite: One inspiration for my work with Resilience is with all of the places I've traveled and all of the people who were badly injured, I noticed with a little bit of song, it brings back their music. They start singing and sharing their stories. Their stories are about the past, but they are also about hope for the future--what they want to do. I found out that human beings are so resilient. We are stronger than we think. We are built to deal with more than we think we can. With just a little song, a child can start singing again and recover. Even if we force people to be mean, like people who kill in war, music can bring a sense of hope for a better future. People generally want to be good people, even though leaders want to make us do wrong things.


Another influence of my work with Resilience is that my wife Sandra and I have a new home in the country where people are mostly farmers, carpenters and builders. They are very down-to-earth and very sweet neighbors. There is a lot of space and air. My studio looks out on the land and I open my window, because the horses love to hear me play and they stand outside the window! When I put the flute down, they walk away! It is a very inspiring place. I took my time with this album and infused my new influences of the resilience of the children and families I met in my travels, and my new open-space air in the country. 

I had a new Musical Instrument Digital Interface [MIDI] equipment the size of an iPhone called Minim Wireless MIDI Controller. I used my thumbs just like I do when I play the kalimba.  This equipment has changed my life. I really put more of myself in this album, more than I have ever done. I was able to play bass and percussion and then I replaced the parts with real musicians.  Being able to play the parts with the MIDI first, made the final product sound just like I heard it in my head and spirit.

Tony Cedras has been an amazing friend and musician throughout my career. He has played on a lot of my albums. When I was working on the album Resilience, I would Skype with Tony while he was in his studio in Cape Town, South Africa.

This album has been some of my best work, because it comes from all of my influences, to include all of the people I have met in my life and travels, my experiences, healing, living in the countryside and seeing all of these amazing sunsets every day.


MJ: Your photographs of mountain gorillas, lakes and nature are beautiful. Will you describe some of the stories behind these photos?

Samite Photographing in Forest (1).jpeg

Samite: There is a picture of Lake Kivu of Fishermen in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo where the women were telling me stories of their terrible experiences. That particular day there was a young girl whom was found by this older woman and taken to the hospital after being violated by rebels. She had survived this awful experience, and her parents turned their backs on her. This was such a sad and dark story. So I would sit at Lake Kivu and watch the fisherman come with their families on these boats. They would throw fishing nets into the river and then start cooking dinner on the boats. They would be singing songs on the boat and the waves would be bringing this music back towards me. This was a very healing force and I took a photo of it.

About to Strike Samite.jpg

I have all of these memories with my grandfather protecting my grandmother's sweet potatoes from the monkeys. I was familiar with being around them. I wanted to go back to Uganda when the government was better. The forest that I used to go into with my brother was now populated with houses. I decided to go into the mountains to remote Bwindi Impenetrable National Park which is a renowned mountain gorilla sanctuary. It is overwhelmingly beautiful to see mountain gorillas. In my last trip a Silverback gorilla decided to stop about two feet away from me. He stopped to see if I was going to be dangerous for his family. He started making grunting sounds. I asked the guides if I should run, and they told me he was making friendly sounds and I should also make those same sounds. So I made the same sounds and picked up a leaf and pretended to eat it, and then the gorilla walked away. The rest of the family all walked by me. It was the most beautiful experience. I photographed a baby who looked at me. He looked up and saw that I was right under a tree and he climbed it and he pushed the branch on top of my head and he took off and hid behind his dad! His dad looked at me with an expression on his face of What are you going to do about it?!

MJ: What is one of your favorite stories?

Samite: One day I was driving in a car in Nairobi and I saw this man walking in the street. He didn't look like he belonged in the street. I had this strong overwhelming feeling that I had to become his friend. So, I stopped Joann's car in the middle of the street and asked the older man to come into my car. I accidentally scared this man, because he didn't know who I was. I yelled out to him that I am a musician, and he told me I should have told him that right away! I drove him, Mzee Ambwene, home and made him tea and he told me stories. We became really good friends and I told him that I would like to meet him again. We agreed in a month we would meet at a particular tree. After a month he came and brought an instrument he played when he was young called the litungu! I drove him home and made him tea and he taught me how to tune it and play it. 

Samite with Latingu.jpeg

Later on I moved with Joann to Ithaca, NY. Everyone was telling me that I needed to meet  Professor Matti Hatch at Cornell University. I met him and he took me down into the basement. He found a cassette and played it. As it turned out, it was my old friend Mzee Ambwene who gave me the litungu, being interviewed.  He was likely playing the same litungu he gave me! I had a strong feeling of being connected to him and knowing that this instrument would end up healing people. It is a very healing instrument. 

Recently, Joseck Asikoye who is in the band Zabali wa Africa from Washington, DC, stopped by my house on his way to a gig near Tully, NY.  We shared stories and he happened to know Mzee Ambwene.  They came from the same village. He informed me that Mzee had died two years ago. Zabali wa Africa paid for his funeral. What a small world.  Joseck just sent me an audio recording of Mzee singing. 

I feel like the world is a small place and I feel like all my stories have led from one thing to another. 

Mzee Ambwene singing 41 seconds into newscast. Courtesy of YouTube.

MJ: Samite, are there some final thoughts you would like to leave us with?

I believe we are here to learn as spirits and we’re here to grow and share our stories so that others can heal and learn as well.
— Samite

Samite: I love all of my neighbors and they love me. We don't need to talk politics. I think it is important for artists to remind people of hope and peace, because when I am performing and I look out into the audience, I am singing in Ugandan and they are singing back in Ugandan. At that moment people are not remembering the difference--we are all just listening to the notes. They are all forgetting where I am from. We need to go back to that healing energy.

I believe that we are built to handle more than what we think we can. I believe we are here to learn as spirits and we're here to grow and share our stories so that others can heal and learn as well.  We need to share our positive stories. We need to be kinder. I think most people are generally good at heart. Think about what you can give. 

Catch Samite with Siama at The Cedar Wednesday, October 9th. Tickets are still available here.