For Somi, an American-born singer, raised partly in Zambia and with family roots in Rwanda and Uganda, the concept of home is a complicated one.
“I’ve come to understand that home is always within us,” says Somi, a vocalist whose transnational heritage is as unclassifiable as her jazz/world/pop/R&B infused sound. Somi spent her childhood in Zambia (where her father worked for the World Health Organization), her adolescence in suburban Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, a post-college stint in East Africa working with AIDS orphans, and she retains strong emotional and cultural ties to her parents’ home in Rwanda and Uganda. With her third album If the Rains Come First, Somi says that she has come to a more all-encompassing sense of who she is and where she comes from – and how that sense of self, and home, gives her strength. “To move through the rains, the challenges that life brings, we can always go to that place within ourselves to find that open palm that’s willing to help us.”
Somi never meant to be a jazz singer. “As a little girl, singing was always a fantasy, not a tangible way of life,” she remembers. “I would think, ‘Oh, I’ll be like Julie Andrews.’ But I never really thought that I would be a singer.” Instead, she studied cello and was immersed in the classical and African music her parents favored. She studied in college to be a medical anthropologist and spent a year following graduation working in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania with children whose families had been afflicted by HIV/AIDS. It was only after she returned to the U.S. in 1998 that she began to explore popular music seriously. She began playing and singing in New York City and studied for a master’s degree in performance at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her first album, Eternal Motive was self-released in 2003 on her own SanaaHouse Productions.
Somi began performing with jazz musicians around New York City, incorporating the freedom and interplay of their playing style into her own. Her second album, which followed in 2007, was recorded with an all-acoustic, all-jazz-player ensemble. Sessions for Red Soil in My Eyes were loosely structured and improvisational. The tracks were recorded mostly live, with few overdubs or studio manipulation. Red Soil in My Eyes’s single, “Ingele” got extensive radio play and appeared on the U.S. World Music Charts’ top ten for several months.
For her new album, If the Rains Come First, Somi took another approach. “This album was produced in a more technical way, with the rhythm section recorded in Paris, and other layers in New York. It was just more controlled,” she says.
That change in production style had an impact on the music itself, she adds. “Because of the controlled production environment of this record, it definitely has a more pop sensibility because that’s something that you might see less in jazz and more in like the pop realm or soul or R&B,” she says. “Pop has always been an influence in my music and in my songwriting, but I think I’ve always allowed my songs to live in a jazz context. It is sort of all of those things -- jazz and soul and pop.”
As in Red Soil, Somi wrote songs in African languages, such as Swahili and Kinyaran, as well as English. The language she chose, whether for the main body of the song or a few lines of chorus, was determined organically, by the shape of the melody, the rhythm or the story she was trying to tell. “I would use whatever language I felt the story was best conveyed in,” she explains. “Sometimes when a song comes to me it might come out in Swahili but it might also come out in English. Definitely I believe in an organic approach to songwriting, so that it’s not something that’s forced. It’s not like, oh, this would work better because of that. That would feel almost like a gimmick to use the language.”
If the Rains Come First is a subtle album, quiet on the surface, but evocative and full of emotion. Somi says that her intent with this record was to work with nuance, rather than demonstrating the extremes of her range. “On my last record, I was sort of showing other directions and my range. With this one it was very much about creating a feeling of intimacy, “ she explains. “It’s about the understated and subtle ways of expressing my whole identity as a woman who is influenced obviously by the West and by East Africa as well. It’s understanding that I can get beyond the lyrics to tell a story of my African and American self.”
Somi brought in a diverse group of musicians – some with roots in African traditions, others primarily jazz artists – to play on If the Rains Come First. Madou Kone, from the Ivory Coast, plays percussion on most of the tracks. Michael Olatuja, a Nigerian bass player from England now living in New York, plays bass. Two long-collaborators who helped Somi shape her sound on Red Soil returned for her third album. Herve Samb, a jazz guitarist from Senegal, played on nearly all the tracks and co-wrote “If the Rains Come First,” “Kuzunguka” and “Jewel of His Soul.” Todo Doru, a Japanese jazz pianist, played extensively and also co-wrote “Jewel of My Soul.” Other contributors included Liberty Ellman, who co-wrote “Changing Inspirations,” and David Gilmore, the jazz guitarist (not the Pink Floyd founder), co-wrote “Enganjyani” with Somi. “Enganjyani” is one of the album’s highlights and a showcase for Somi’s best-known collaborator, the legendary trumpet player Hugh Masekela.
Somi first met Masekela in New York in 2005, after a concert in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. “I wanted to go and talk to him after the show, but the line was really long and I was living uptown and I was in Brooklyn. And, you know, you don’t want to harass people. And I know he was overwhelmed with all of the fans that wanted to greet him,” she remembers. A friend insisted that she go up and meet him. Another acquaintance, working security, got her into the backstage area, where Masekela was.
After Somi was introduced to him, Masekela asked her where she was from. She told him that her family was from Uganda (though they are ethnic Rwandan Tutsis), and he said that he had been to her home recently. He asked her what she did, and she produced a CD from her bag. “He was very disarming, very much like the very sweet uncle who always listens, busy as he is, and that’s who he is, I think, for everyone,” says Somi. Six months later, she heard by email from his office that he had listened to her CD, loved her voice and wanted to work with her.
Over the next few years, Masekela became a mentor to Somi, looking her up whenever in New York to provide support and advice. The two had talked about working together for some time, but finally their schedules lined up when Somi had begun recording If the Rains Come First. Masekela was in New York right at the beginning of her sessions and dropped in one evening to record “Enganjyani.” His playing is wonderful, at once smoldering and serene, restrained to fit the contours of the song, yet undeniably at its center. Somi says that the best thing about his playing on this song is that “I can hear his voice. I love that I can listen to it and hear Hugh Masekela.” She adds, “That was a real experience to be in the room with him. And he’s there telling me stories about Miriam Makeba, or Miles Davis or Fela Kuti or whatever …and you’re just like, this man has done so many things and he’s here. And he’s generous and kind enough to be here. So I’d like to say that what I appreciate most is that I hear his voice and I hear his heart.”
“Enganjyani” is one of many songs that seem to bridge two cultures – jazz and pop, American and African – in a way that is completely natural for Somi. Still that eclecticism proves somewhat difficult for music industry types who fret over whether to market her as a jazz, world or pop singer. “People will say, ‘This is a little too African to be jazz’ or ‘It’s too jazz to be African.’ I’m hoping this record is actually a little bit closer to a happy place between the two,” she says. “But it’s something that I’m always negotiating.” She adds that it’s an issue that seems more important to the music business than to people who love music itself. “I think oftentimes, we underestimate who our audience is. As people of the music business, I think that we often complicate things that could be quite simple; because really it comes down to a very visceral response. Either I like the music or I don’t. “
African artists, she says, have a particularly difficult time breaking through, especially if they don’t fit preconceived notions of “world music.” “There’s so much work coming out of the continent and the diaspora that I think it’s always sort of a confrontation and it’s always about ‘How am I placed?’ If there aren’t these little markers of what African music is, whether that’s in the lyrics or in the rhythms, I think that sometimes things can get lost. You end up having to explain a lot when music is not African in the same way that it has been in the past.”
Somi gets involved in this explaining process, not just on her own behalf, but through her charity, New Africa Live, which promotes and produces multidisciplinary events that celebrate contemporary African artists. She is currently working on a spring concert in New York with Vieux Farka Toure and Ethiopian folk singer Meklit Hadero. A salon series of conversations with artists will launch in July.
And here’s where Somi’s serious, altruistic side converges with her musical persona; where the girl who went to East Africa to work with AIDS orphans meets the jazz singer in the beautiful dress. “My work is all about trying to shape and help people reimagine the way that African artists are perceived. I try to do that thing, work on the ground in Rwanda or Uganda to motivate the artists there who don’t have the resources that I have. Even non-artists can tap into this creative side of themselves and understand that they, too, can participate in the global cultural stage,” she says. “Cultural enterprises are a hugely important part of the economy that needs to have the same sort of development funds and focus that the other sectors of society require and deserve.”
“At times, yes, it can feel completely frivolous to put on a pretty dress and make-up and go on stage when people are suffering,” she adds. “When I consider those very harsh realities, what people are carrying, it seems kind of ridiculous for me to be running off to Athens to do a song, to go and sing for people, and put on a show.”
Yet Somi adds that music and performance itself has a value that may not be quantifiable, but is still very real. “There’s actually some power that is shared in song,” she says. “When somebody comes and tells you how your music may have touched them or inspired them, you know that you’re actually participating in something that’s bigger than yourself. It’s not just about the stage. I’d like to believe that I’m one of those artists who really tries to empower other people, whether it’s through art and culture or just understanding themselves and understanding the value of cultural production and how it can change the way we see our world and how the world sees us.”