You need to be in a good mood to enjoy Embalasasa, a very gentle mood, very kind, because the music itself is gentle and kind, and Samite Mulondo sings in the warmest and furriest of gentle voices, like a modest cat.
If you don’t like being lulled then it will drive you mad. “Where’s the grit?” you’ll ask. “Why does he have to be so pleasant and earnest all the time? Albums like this are the reason that people avoid the world music sections of their local record stores. This is why they write it all off as New Age niceness. Where’s his edge?”
There is no edge. Or, rather, there is an edge, but it isn’t in the music. The man has had a rough life. After growing up in Uganda and learning to play the endere flute from his grandfather, he fled the country in 1982 after he was threatened, and his brother was murdered, during the political violence that followed the expulsion if Idi Amin. (Post-dictator, the killing got much more democratic.) Samite lived in several different countries, playing as he went. In 1990 he began releasing albums. Embalasasa is his ninth. It follows Tunula Eno, which was written and recorded as his wife Joan was dying of brain cancer.
In 1997 he returned to Uganda for the first time. An American film team went with him and they made a TV documentary called Song of the Refugee.
“At first I was apprehensive about performing for my fellow Africans amidst their suffering. But to my surprise, I found that my music moved adults and children alike to open like flowers to warm sunshine…. As I sang and played… people pulled out drums, tins cans, and anything handy with percussive quality and offered their own songs and dances in return — songs that had been pushed to the sub-conscious since being uprooted from their homes.”
While I don’t have the details, it sounds to me as if the music in Embalasasa is a continuation of that experience in Uganda. There is a lot of percussion on the album, and the last track, “Setula”, is a long piece with multiple instruments rolling together in harmony. “Nawe Okiwulira” is similar, but here the percussion — kalimba thumb piano, and possibly a wooden madinda xylophone — is overlaid with singing. All of the music is soothing and open. It treats the listener as if they were something precious, as Samite must have wanted to treat his displaced countryfolk and the shattered people he met in Rwanda and Liberia. “Kakokolo” has the softness of a lullaby. There’s no percussion on this one, just strumming. It’s the sound a kindergarten teacher with a guitar would make if he were trying to persuade uneasy kids to lie down for their afternoon nap.
There are one or two moments on the album that are a little like the work of the Zimbabwean guitarist Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi. “Kakokolo” isn’t one of those moments, but there’s something about Embalasasa‘s title song that makes me think of Tuku Music. Is it simply that both Tuku Music and Embalasasa are gentle albums? I think it’s the way Samite’s voice comes into the song with a few breathy words and a lightly drawn-out oh-oh-oh, a technique that Mtukudzi sometimes uses. But there’s nothing on Embalasasa that matches the Zimbabwean’s best work, nothing with the impact of his horribly sad “Neria”, one of those songs that, if it catches you in the right mood, can send you staggering around the room in tears even though you don’t know what you’re crying at. Nor does Samite have the punch of that other Ugandan political exile, Geoffrey Oryema. Niceness only takes you so far.
In the end it isn’t enough. Despite the movement from percussion to guitar to flute to singing, there isn’t enough variety in Embalasasa to make it a satisfying album. I’m loath to criticise this one because Samite seems to be a wee bit of an awesome bloke — he works with war orphans and he’s the director of the Musicians for World Harmony organisation — but there are less-awesome blokes out there who make more compelling albums. That’s a shame, but there it is.