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Homegrown Plus: Samite

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In this photo of Samite, he plays the litungu, a Kenyan lyre. Photo is accompanied by the Homegrown 2020 logo, which includes the words "Library of Congress American Folklife Center Homegrown 2020 Concert Series, "Homegrown at Home."
Samite plays the litungu, a Kenyan lyre. Courtesy of Samite.

In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both videos together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) In 2021, we were very proud to present Samite, a singer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter who was born in Uganda and has lived in upstate New York since the 1980s.

Samite was born and raised in Uganda, but left as a political refugee in 1982. He spent the following few years in Kenya where he studied African traditional musical instruments and rhythms. He mastered the kalimba (thumb piano), marimba (wooden xylophone), litungu (seven-stringed Kenyan lyre) and various flutes, both traditional and western, and learned both traditional melodies and original compositions. He played with the popular African Heritage Band and the Bacchus Club Jazz Band, and played frequently at the Mount Kenya Safari Club and other leading Kenyan venues.

Samite leans out of a window holding a flute.
Samite. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Samite immigrated to the United States in 1987, and continued to play traditional and original music, as well to compose for film scores. He has released albums on the Shanachie, Triloka, Xenophile, and Windham Hill labels, as has been featured on compilations from Putumayo, Ellipsis Arts, and Narada.

By now, you’re ready to watch the concert.  See it in the player below!

In the interview, Samite and I discuss his life and work. We start with his beginnings in Uganda and the influence of his grandfather and his father. We then discuss the disastrous regime of Idi Amin, his decision to leave, and his life as a refugee and then an immigrant in Kenya and later in America. We talk about the influences of some unlikely people on the U.S. and global music scenes. We discuss his emotional journey in the summer of 1999 traveling through parts of Africa, filming a PBS documentary titled Song of the Refugee, which was inspired by his desire to present African refugees’ hopes for the future in spite of the loss and suffering they have endured. We talk about the humanitarian non-profit organization Samite founded in 2002, Musicians for World Harmony, and his recent work, Resilience, which was nominated for a Hollywood Music in Media Award in 2019. There are many stories: how he beat the system in a refugee camp; how he tricked a band into hiring him on an instrument he had never played before; how he learned the litungu from a man he had an irresistible impulse to stop in the road; and how Pete Seeger convinced him to fire his manager. Watch it in the player below!

You can find both of these videos with more bibliographic information on the Library of Congress website, with the concert here at this link and the oral history at this link.

Thanks for watching, listening, and reading! The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress. For past concerts, including links to webcasts and other information, visit the Homegrown Concerts Online Archive.

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