March 16, 2006
Ugandan musician and composer, Samite Mulondo is a funny guy. When I inquired through management at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern if I could get a copy of Samite’s play list, I was told he wouldn’t be using one. Since I’m terrible about remembering names of songs, especially ethnic names of songs, I panicked a bit. In any case, Samite performed many songs which I had either not heard prior or were re-worked and I didn’t recognize the new arrangements.
Samite and his band possess a wonderful sense of humor. Did Samite ever imagine that he would be playing Ugandan music at a tavern that resembles a dude ranch? Let me describe the Tractor Tavern to you because the place is so unique it deserves a description in a review. And it is my belief that a concert is more than just the performers and the performance. The venue and the audience also play starring roles, otherwise, you could just stay safely tucked at home listening to CDs. I’m one of those people that needs to drink in the entire atmosphere, picking up on all the sensations.
The Tractor Tavern is located towards the end of a trendy strip of overpriced boutiques, upscale restaurants and bars, but it represents the “old” Ballard since there is nothing trendy about the tavern’s gritty qualities, (some people would call it charm). It’s an oasis for artists seeking to escape gentrified Seattle. The tavern isn’t known for hosting African music concerts and in fact, usually hosts bluegrass, folk, rock and country music concerts. You walk into the place and you’re greeted by rows of holiday lights hanging from the ceilings along with old cowboy boots hanging like laundry throughout the tavern. A skull of a bull hangs over the stage, sandwiched between, two large red bright “T’s” that might as well stand for “tacky Texas” or “Texas T,” but are in fact, representative of the name of the tavern. (I wonder what the musicians thought of the huge tractor tires that must be bolted to the tavern’s walls?) Well, despite this cowboy décor, Samite and his band managed to magically delivered the African bush to this surreal setting.
The musicians crept onto the stage as audience members quickly grabbed a seat. With a kalimba in hand, Samite proved his great dexterity on the instrument, playing both gorgeous melodic phrases and intricate rhythms. Then he wooed the audience with his gentle and heartfelt vocals. It felt like a father singing lullabies to his children, soothing. I know that I forgot all of my troubles throughout the duration of the concert. I felt transported to a loving place. Speaking of being transported, the trio’s use of sound effects of “the bush” transported us to Uganda. Although I usually frown on technology, Samite makes good use of it, looping sounds that he either played his flute or sung over and at times, he created vocal polyphony through the use of a foot pedal. Samite commented, “this is what happens when you take an African from ‘the bush’ and give him technology.”
Samite played several instruments through the course of the concert, a kalimba cased in a small gourd, a standard thumb piano, a tiny wood flute, (an African piccolo), a larger side-blown wood flute, those pedals with looped effects and of course his signature vocals. Charlie Shew switched off on percussion, bass and electric guitar and Jeff Haynes played djembe, congas, snare and other
percussion. The musicians even played a cajón which traveled far from its South American origins to appear in Ugandan inspired songs.
Although I’m not good with song names, a few songs stood out for me. First there was the lightness and breath, Embalasasa which appears on Samite’s latest CD of the same name. The song with its hushed tones speaks of a beautiful lizard sporting rainbow colors that is also poisonous. Samite made the comment that the lizard is representative of AIDS which is killing so many people in Uganda and South Africa, (all over Africa). How could something as beautiful as sex cause such grief? Samite called on his grandfather who once killed the poisonous lizards to come and destroy AIDS.
Another beauty that stood out was a love song, Akanyonyi Kano that Samite’s mother had taught him. He dedicated the song to his daughter, who he mentioned wants to learn how to play piano well without practicing. And speaking of Samite’s mother, he had a funny story about her too. When his mother arrived to live with him in Ithaca, New York, a huge blizzard came through. His mother had never seen snow before and since she’s a short woman, she wanted to know how long the snow would last, because she can’t swim. Samite flashed a mischievous grin and joked that he used the snow to control his mother.
Samite wheeled out Mwatu off of his Tunula Eno CD and also the story about the difference between courting rituals in Uganda and Ithaca. You can findthe story on Tunula Eno , but it’s worth mentioning again. In Uganda when a man wants to marry a woman, he provides meat for her, but in Ithaca, where women are mostly vegetarian, a man must woo a woman with sprouts and tofu. As a vegetarian who despises sprouts, I find this story amusing every time I hear it. The audience, that must have been comprised of some vegetarians relished this story.
Similar to a West African griot or an Irish bard, Samite wove spells with his music and his stories. He and his musicians represented Jacks-of-many-instruments. And these Jacks invited audience members to yank their bodies out of the uncomfortable fold-up metal chairs and dance. “There is a saying that music is wasted if you don’t dance,” Samite informed us. When the band launched into a invigorating guitar & drum driven song, audience members accepted the invitation and made their way to the stage where they got funky African-style.
I could feel the healing taking place. I could feel souls being liberated from their daily grind. And we were beamed up to another realm where diseases, war and suffering don’t exist. Samite and his band did not just deliver a performance in a venue surrounded by new money and gentrification, they in fact, reminded us that we have souls that need to linger with spirits. The spirits were dancing under the double T’s and the watchful eye of an ancestral bull. The machismo of the old world where bulls are slaughtered and wars ravage humanity and Mother Earth, collided with generosity, compassion, love and hearty music. Ballard will never be the same. There are after all, other ways to spruce up a place besides money and the latest trend. You just can’t go wrong with love-inspired music.
Patricia Herlevi is a former music journalist turned music researcher. She is especially interested in raising music consciousness. She is looking for an agent and publisher for her book Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit). She founded and hosts the blog
The Whole Music Experience and has contributed to World Music Central since 2003.