Featured Artist of the Month
June - Samuel Nalangira
Samuel Nalangira – Musical Ambassador
By Cliff Yankovich
It has been said that music is the Universal Language. It has also been said that smiles are contagious. Small wonder that Ugandan born Samuel Nalangira is able to connect with audiences of all ages, nationalities, and ethnicities in Michigan, across the US, and around the world. Samuel is a music maker with a seemingly endless supply of infectious smiles. How fortunate we are that Mr. Nalangira has decided to base his musical headquarters in West Michigan.
Samuel heard the call to be a musician when he was just eight years old. His musical training on adungu, a traditional multi-stringed Ugandan instrument, began that year. Something magical happened and the love of music and the desire to learn, teach, and share his music and culture took root deep in his heart. By the time he was fifteen years old, Samuel has become so adept at playing the adungu that he began to teach others. He had also taught himself to play several other instruments that were played in neighboring regions and countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. They include the akogo (aka thumb piano), the ngoni – a stringed instrument with a body made of wood and stretched skin, and the endingidi, which has a single string played with a bow. Drums of all types are a part of his arsenal as well. However, the adungu is not only his first instrument, it is his favorite.
“Whenever I am playing this instrument, I feel like I am in heaven,” Samuel has said.
After teaching for fifteen years, he brought a group from Uganda to the States to share their music and dance. Samuel’s group experienced an especially warm welcome in South Haven, MI and the friends he made there convinced him to move halfway around the world to a very different climate from his homeland.
“I first came here [to the US] with my students and we toured the US to share our music and culture,” Samuel recalled. “Once that tour was over, I decided to stay in the US to pursue my music career.”
A presentation to school kids in South Haven still sticks in his memory as one of the best events of his globe-trotting career.
“I had the opportunity to teach over one hundred students three Ugandan dances,” Samuel related. “I ended my workshop with my performances of the same dances I taught them.”
For the last three years, Samuel has blended the low tech of his traditional instruments, (he has been known to string his adungu with fish line), with the high tech world of electronic looping devices. These allow a musician to record short passages of music, percussion or singing and play them back in an endless loop that he can use as a back ground to play and sing over. This creates the effect of many Samuels playing or singing together at once and allows him to sound like a group while being the only one on stage. The net result of this can be very otherworldly which contributes to the unique sounds that tickle your ears when Samuel performs.
While he is very adept at solo performances, one of the things Samuel loves the most about music is the way it has allowed him to connect with other musicians around the world. Time spent on the internet with “Samuel Nalangira” put into your favorite search engine will allow you to listen to him collaborating with instruments and musicians old and new – from hammer dulcimers to electric guitars and synthesizers played by a melting pot of people. One of my favorite clips shows a group of Canadian school kids drumming away at his urging with proper drumsticks pounding out rhythms on overturned plastic utility pails. When they are not drumming, Samuel is urging them to jump and dance. The man is very, very high energy – a perfect person to put in front of kids of all ages.
Samuel told me that he typically begins the song writing process with a pattern or a tune. His inspiration can come from anywhere.
“It could be a person, an event, a story, a dream or imaging of something which sparks a feeling inside me to compose a song. Something around me and something I feel,” Samuel said. “I may have a story in mind, but the tune comes first.”
For a taste of Samuel’s music, you can check out his album Amayengo (The Waves of The Lake). It is available on all of the streaming services. The opening track, “On The Lake,” starts out sounding like a fiddler kicking off a sea shanty, but the akogo shows up followed closely by some drumming and before sixty seconds are gone the listener is engulfed with the full Nalangira effect – so long sea shanty, hello poly-rhythms, call and response and Uganda!
July 13 will find Samuel and his trio at Beats on Bates in downtown Kalamazoo, Fredrick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park will host them on July 26, and July 30 promises a Wild Thyme in Allegan. You can follow him on Facebook or at www.samuelnalangira.com.
After two years of a global pandemic, the contagion of Samuel Nalangira’s smile delivered along with musical “language” anyone can understand is welcome relief.