Somi: The Lagos Music Salon

A cross-cultural beauty of a record. Soul-jazz-Afrobeat complexity illuminates an American singer’s encounter with Africa’s most important city. Best of the summer, of the year.
The Lagos Music Salon

I’m old-fashioned about summer. There ought to be lemonade. There ought to be an ice cream truck roaming the neighborhood. Kids should be barreling toward the neighborhood pool or swimming hole. Let it be hot.

And there ought to be some music you can’t get out of your head, something catchy on the radio maybe, or just an album that you started listening to in June that you still can’t get enough of in August. It’s the soundtrack to your steamy afternoons or windows open car rides.

And, sure, there was a time when that music was AM radio, pop songs, and three-chord wonders. But for me this summer it’s The Lagos Music Salon, a recording by American-born singer Somi — a big, sumptuous collection of African / jazz / soul grooves that is so satisfying, fun, and enlightening to listen to that it might still be summer come November. I know I’ll still be listening to this disc when the weather grows colder.

A unison lick for guitar and piano starts “Lady Revisited” with hypnotic power as shakers keeps it all straight, and then bass drum and vocals jump in. “La-dy!” A lyric famous from Fela Kuti’s song “Lady” comes in (“She gon say / She gon say I be lady-o”), followed by a layer of conga accents, followed by a fast, syncopated, Afrobeat guitar line that is doubled by electric bass. And then, yes, a driving drum groove, too. And after a couple of choruses, of course, a Kuti-style saxophone section enters with a riveting melody to push things further toward complex, percussion-stacked, thrilling ecstasy. It’s a party and a history lesson, it’s a manifesto and a poem, it’s a call to dance and think at once.

And that’s just one of 18 tracks, one song after the other a wondrous, brilliant, revelation. To be fair, though the music gleams like a great summer day, the total package is more complex than some ephemeral summer hit. But that just deepens its pleasure rather than diminishing it.

Somi was born and educated in Illinois, a young African-American of Ugandan and Rwandan descent who got a performing degree from NYU and began singing in jazz and world music styles. Her first significant release, Red Soil in My Eyes from 2007, clearly reflects a blend of interest and ease with jazz, neo-soul, and African music. The opener, “Ingele”, is sung in Swahili, but it reflects more than anything the funky, acoustic guitar-driven ease of Cassandra Wilson’s breakthrough music on Blue Light Till Dawn and New Moon Daughter. The 2009 follow-up, If the Rains Come First was just as good — elegant, sophisticated, sumptuously produced music that exists beyond the boundaries of the various genres Somi works with — and she recorded a live record with her quartet in 2011 at The Jazz Standard, featuring guitarist Liberty Ellman, among others.

As fine as all this music is, it doesn’t prepare us for The Lagos Music Salon, which is a larger, more omnivorous project. The record, while utterly consistent with the kind of music Somi has been making all along, reflects her experiences living for over a year in Lagos, Nigeria. It was recorded in both Lagos and New York, featuring both her US band and many African musicians as well. The core band is inherently diverse: Ellman on guitar (born in London, raised in the US, a jazz player beyond category), Toru Dodo on keyboards (Japanese, educated at Berklee), Nigerian bassist Michael Olatuja, and drummer Otis Brown III, who has been integral to bands led by Joe Lovano and Esperanza Spalding. But the music goes well beyond this band, being infused with other musicians and also a spirit that distinguishes The Lagos Music Salon from Somi’s other music. Angelique Kidjo guests on vocals on “Lady Revisited”; Common raps on “When Rivers Cry”; New York bassist and producer Keith Witty provides drum programming throughout.

The collection of songs here, all penned by Somi along with various collaborators, is equally diverse in mood and feel, even as it is given a consistency by weaving an African sensibility into the leader’s jazz-soul base. “Last Song” is a wonderful example of this beautiful combination. It begins as a sensual soul ballad built around Dodo’s illuminated piano accompaniment. But after two-and-a-half minutes of beauty, the song manages to get even more incredible as a pulsing Afrobeat groove simmers under a coda that lifts things higher into pure air.

For your summer afternoon on a balcony or in a backyard, The Lagos Music Salon is generous with sensual songs of love or courting. “Ginger Me” invites a boy to flatter, seduce, and lure the narrator as slowly, gently, and intelligently as possible. Otis Brown’s slippery funk beat makes it feel like the perfect push-pull of an invitation, and the band and three background singers color the melody with shadows of harmony — like eye make-up only noticeable when the light hits a woman’s face perfectly. “Ankara Sundays” is a shade darker, telling a tale of how lace and a smile might help a woman “forget about things for a while”, but the turning, wheel-within-a-wheel groove of drums, muted guitar, and electric bass makes the song feel like a rising spiral of hope.

There are the two versions of “Love Juju”, each using the same words to explain a perfect seduction (“Dark chocolate, dowry shells / Plaintain and mango smells / Please don’t wake me if I’m dreaming”). One is driven by dancing guitar and the other is a dream built on a single, floating guitar arpeggio that is lifted finally by a drum pattern that moves your hips before you realize it. The coolest sex song here is “Akobi: Firstborn S(u)n”. Beautifully swung horns lock in with a drum pattern that is infectious, the bass line is elastic and a chorus sung in Yoruba (one of several native languages to Nigeria) make this a confection in every sense.

Lagos also boasts songs that raise your consciousness rather than other parts of you. “Round Brown Things” is a heartbreaking and utterly gorgeous melody about a young prostitute. “She offers of bosom and flame. . . . She calls your name / But scowls just the same / Brown round things for sale.” Dodo plays simply, while the main counterpoint to Somi’s voice is a majestic trumpet accompaniment and solo by Nigerian-American jazz musician Ambrose Akinmusire. Somi’s singing on this daring song has the dark shading and melodic turn of the best of Joni Mitchell. Just as difficult to hear but wonderful to listen to is “Two-Dollar Day”, the story of a woman whose husband is dead and who must support her children with work and begging. “Look away if you dare / She’ll still be standing there” is a heart-breaking couplet, but even better are the sensual sounds that are woven around the words, a set of compelling interlocking percussion parts and emotion-ripping harmonies.

The plight of women in Nigeria was clearly on Somi’s mind during her time as a Lagos resident. “Four African Women” paints chilling portraits over a stunning bass line, and Somi does not shy away from words as weighted as “genocide”, but she does so with a sense that this culture and land — flawed to be sure — offers compensations like all rich, complex places. The collection opens with a “field recording” of Somi entering Nigeria in conversation with a customs officer, and the quick telling of a story of a show-off monkey make Lagos into a documentary as well as a soul record. But the ultimate balance of The Lagos Music Salon is toward life, hope, sensuality, and love.

“Still Your Girl” and “Four.One.Nine” present much more complex portraits of love: stories of women who will put up with some disappointment or even trouble in seeking to find love. And the music, complex in how it weaves its sense of pulse, reinforces this complexity.

But that is the great strength of The Lagos Music Salon. It is a joyful burst of beauty in rhythm, harmony, and melody even as it tells stories that bend simplicity. It dares you not to put it on at your pool party, but you’re going to want to anyway. It bubbles with groove and feeling, but it represents a true artist’s encounter with a troubling but beautiful society. The final track, “Shine Your Eye”, is a spoken-word reminiscence about its city. It will make you want to fly to West Africa even as it warns you to be extra-ready if you do.

But you are fully ready to hear and enjoy The Lagos Music Salon, a record that should make Somi into an international star. You won’t be a able to stop listening to The Lagos Music Salon, this rich, moving, sensual, close-to-perfect collection of borderless music.

RATING 9 / 10