Somi interview

From March 2014. Last year word got out that there was strong major label interest in Somi, a hitherto under-the-radar Illinois-born singer of Rwandan and Ugandan origin whose earlier work includes If The Rains Come First on ObliqSound, the label …

Published: 26 Dec 2019. Updated: 2 years.

From March 2014. Last year word got out that there was strong major label interest in Somi, a hitherto under-the-radar Illinois-born singer of Rwandan and Ugandan origin whose earlier work includes If The Rains Come First on ObliqSound, the label that put out some of new African jazz guitar icon Lionel Loueke’s early work.

Since the A&R buzz subsided the trail went dead for a while. Somi then got signed to Sony’s OKeh Records, a revived historic jazz label now home to Sonny Rollins, Craig Handy, Nils Petter Molvaer, Michel Camilo, and Dhafer Youssef. The Lagos Music Salon is the singer’s debut for the label featuring her own songs based around her experiences living in Lagos. The singer’s approach is a multicultural cosmopolitan one that joins the dots between Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba. Championed by Mama Africa’s former husband Hugh Masekela, a pan-African and global jazz icon she regards as a mentor and who guested on If The Rains Come First the singer/songwriter has also worked with John Legend, Cassandra Wilson, Mos Def and Paul Simon.

The Lagos Music Salon features the Beninoise jazz and world music singer Angélique Kidjo as a guest on ‘Lady Revisited’, a song Somi introduced on her 2007 released album Red Soil in My Eyes while rapper Common (Like Water For Chocolate) guests on ‘When Rivers Cry.’ Somi talked to marlbank over the phone when she was over in London to do interviews ahead of the album's release. The conversation began by exploring what Somi felt were the most surprising aspects of her Lagos experience, and what her expectations before embarking on living in Nigeria happened to be.

“My expectations were I didn’t really have any expectations. I just was looking for an opportunity to kind of stretch out spiritually, creatively, and just sort of step out of my comfort zone. I felt I was getting to a place in my career and in my life when I was floating, stagnating might be the right word. I felt I was coasting quote-unquote ‘mid-career’ not quite emerging, not quite established. I went there with the commitment to a seven-week artist’s residency in a university.”

Somi found the experience a stimulating one but not one that came without initial risk. “I’ve been wanting to go home to Africa for several years. I was really curious about Lagos because I found it had a lot of similarities to New York in terms of its gritty nature, cosmopolitan kind of rhythm, and cultural production in general. I was able to decide to stay for 15 months that then became 18 months. I think my biggest surprise initially was a sort of a blissful experience being there with the people in the sun reconnecting with the African continent and culture even though I’m not Nigerian, being in that energy. I think what always surprised me was the kind of everyday casual, almost, inspiration that seemed to be ubiquitous. A few months in I became a bit panicked and I was like ‘what I have done’? I have thrown my career out the window: I left my label and my management and my agency and I’m just here in Nigeria. And I’m not sure how this is going to serve me as a professional artist. And then six months in I kind of settled.”

Once established Somi made use of a resource she had been cultivating meantime that besides drawing on her journal helps give the album atmosphere. “I had a digital voice recorder that I carried everywhere and recorded all sorts of random sounds and conversations. So I realised I had this body of work and maybe the surprise was how much that huge risk, that huge dramatic change, would in the end deeply inspire me and ultimately give me such a wonderful reward.”

The album paints a picture of life in Lagos utilising these sounds, and they act as episodic aural street scenes interspersed between the songs. Somi works with musicians on the album who include pianist Toru Dodo, guitarist Liberty Ellman, drummer Otis Brown III, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and the formerly London-based bass guitarist Michael Olatuja, the last name fans who know Soweto Kinch’s early work will be familiar with.

Common features on ‘When Rivers Cry’ a song about the environment and pollution. “I wanted a conscious rapper on it,” the singer says. “I reached out to a few African hip hop artists. But Common obviously has a certain kind of star power, which is always welcome and fantastic. I’ve always been a long time fan of his work. A number of mutual friends connected us. And it just seemed like he really appreciated the message. Common has a long history of social consciousness and activism and I thought that his lyrics were incredibly heartfelt. And I loved the diasporic lens that he leant to the project.”

Lagos Music Salon also is an album that values womanhood and is essentially about empowerment. And in terms of the inclusion of Angélique Kidjo made sense in this regard. Somi comments: “She is sort of like an older sister and a dear friend, mentor, I would even say. And I wanted to revisit the song ‘Lady’ that I actually recorded in my very first release with Harmonia Mundi on Red Soil in My Eyes. The song is very much about African female strength.”

The juju element in the album is a metaphor for the city of Lagos, Somi says, and crops up appropriately enough given the title on ‘Love Juju # 1’ reprised with a different beat and intent as ‘Love Juju # 2’. These songs go to the heart of the scintillating accessible sound of the album where Somi is joined by pianist Toru Dodo, bass guitarist Michael Olatuja, guitarist Liberty Ellman, drummers Otis Brown III and Abraham Lanlate, percussionist Cobhams Asuquo, and backing singer Alicia Olatuja on the first of these two songs.

While Somi produced the album Cobhams Asuquo co-produced with Keith Witty. Somi says Cobhams, a well known Nigerian producer known for his work with singer Aṣa “is sort of known as a producer who is kind of beyond the pop space and who has a serious level of musicianship. It was wonderful to work with him, to make sure I was accurately referencing traditional African music and Nigerian music. Self taught, he happens to be blind, and he’s a genius. You hum a melody to him and 10 months later he sings it back to you. Keith is a dear friend, a bass player who has played in my band. A modern jazz art-head that kind of made sure it didn’t stray away from the scene in New York that has really given me a career. Juju is sort a universal term for African magic. I’m using it as a metaphor and I’m talking about it [when she sings “you must be juju”] in the love context saying that somebody is casting a spell on my heart. If you listen to the lyrics speaking to the fact that I’m completely undone, this person has so completely taken over my heart that they must have cast a spell. But in fact it’s a metaphor I’m using for the city of Lagos. Most people think it’s a romantic commentary which is fine but really I’m talking about the magic the city itself casts on my heart.”

There’s also a very serious side, carefully weighted, to The Lagos Music Salon not surprising as Somi was a TED Global fellow in 2011. This aspect of the album manifests itself not only on ‘When Rivers Cry’ and ‘Brown Round Things’, a song about sexual exploitation; and on ‘Four African Women’, a new version of a Nina Simone song from Simone's classic 1960s album Wild is the Wind, which in this new version touches on the horror of genocide.

Some sees herself as a proud Lagosian now. “I think it’s a hard city but it’s also a really special place too you know. I think like any city everybody walks their own path and has their own personal challenges. I think that in Nigeria if I were to speak very broadly I would say that there are certain infrastructural things that make it a very challenging place to live. But that’s sort of something that haunts most of the developing world. In terms of day-to-day I wouldn’t say it’s about those particular issues that I raised, those are just particular issues that I witnessed and was moved to write about.”

Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s solo on another socially conscious song, this time turning to sexual exploitation, ‘Brown Round Things’, is one of the most dramatic moments on Lagos Music Salon. Somi knew Ambrose before working with him. “I’ve been a fan and he’s been a friend for some time. He’s Nigerian-American and I wanted to make sure that there was a presence of Nigerian voices. Ambrose was born and raised in California in the Bay area. We became more friendly just through social media, in a way we could chat more about Lagos, and my being there was a bonding moment. When I decided I wanted a horn on the album I was fortunate to have him and he did a wonderful job.”

She also says she felt closer to the music of Fela Kuti, and there’s a strong Afrobeat flavour to the album, because of her Nigerian experience. “I think what was so interesting prior to that time in Nigeria is what I realised when I listened to Fela in the middle of the traffic of Lagos, in the middle of the heat, in the middle of the dust, his music is all of that. Dirty and complicated, and beautiful and melodic and dissonant, and brash and proud. It’s like there are so many things about that music I now understood, another layer of what he was saying besides the colloquialisms and the language itself, why that music could only come from that place.” Interview: Stephen Graham

Somi photo by Glynis Carpenter


2019 Highlight: Kuba Więcek trio, Multitasking, Warner Poland

A sharp, short shock of an album, plenty of spare almost punkish energy from the sax-bass-drums trio to it, not to forget an array of little surprises coming along the way, with some artful electronics and the tinkle of glockenspiel dubbing in. Far …

Published: 26 Dec 2019. Updated: 2 years.

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