Singing Across Continents: An Interview with Somi

Somi is a not-exactly jazz singer with roots in Africa and the American midwest, and she has made the year's most amazing record, evoking the spirit of Lagos, Nigeria.
The Lagos Music Salon

The warm musical wind that swept through late summer was the lush creation of a singer named Laura Kabasomi Kakoma, or “Somi”. Her recording, The Lagos Music Salon, is the kind of album that is rare today; a complete experience that evokes a place, an environment, a culture, and a group of people.

The Lagos Music Salon pulses with African rhythms, absolutely, but it’s equally centered around the kind of storytelling you might find in a Paul Simon song, the soulful singing of a Stevie Wonder song, and the improvisational adventure of jazz. Equally appropriate for careful listening or a hip party on a Saturday night, this is the kind of music that leaps so smoothly across boundaries as to make categories irrelevant.

Somi released four recordings before The Lagos Music Salon, each with its own strengths and joys, but the latest is her most mature and certain work. It’s the product of a conscious departure from the path she had been on, making records on small labels associated with New York’s current jazz scene. Without much notice, Somi left New York to return to Africa, taking the opportunity to teach as an artist in residence at a university in Lagos, Nigeria, the continent’s most cosmopolitan capital. This was a return in several ways: Somi’s parents were born in Rwanda and Uganda, and she went on a scholarship after college to East Africa to pursue her interest in medical anthropology.

“When I was living in East Africa, I was preoccupied with unearthing my true cultural self. I grew up in Champaign, Illinois, as a black American and child of immigrants, but I was very much a midwesterner. I was trying to figure out my cultural identity, to reclaim my connection to Africa. I came to peace with being both privileged as an American and being a person of African descent. The experience gave me all this room to decide what I really wanted to do. Music was the obvious choice.”

I spoke to Somi about The Lagos Music Salon, her musical origins, and how she came to be a jazz singer who is not really a jazz singer at all.

The Soundtrack of Youth

Like many children of immigrants to the United States, Somi grew up hearing the sounds of her parents’ past mixed with the the passions and beauties of an American childhood. Somi begins by telling me that Western classical music was a huge part of her childhood. “I started playing the cello when I was eight. I was learning so much about classical music, and what I remember listening to on the radio was the classical music station.”

Her mother, however, had passions that moved from Africa to America. “My mother is not a professional singer, but she has a beautiful voice and is a great keeper of Ugandan folk songs. She sang me a lot of songs from her home. She constantly breaks into song. But she also loves ’50s and ’60s pop. She played Elvis Presley and Perry Como around our house all the time.

“My father is more in love with roots music, ‘world music’, this central African pygmy group that did well on the world music charts. Reggae. That was his spectrum.”

Who was Somi obsessed with as a child? “When my friend and I were seven, eight years old, we watched The Sound of Music every Sunday after church. Julie Andrews made me dream about wanting to be a singer.”

Choosing to be a musician is not easy for a child of immigrants. Somi’s path to being an artist, and particularly a singer, would take her on a longer path. “I loved singing so much, but I didn’t think it was a viable career choice. Everyone in my family had a more traditional job, and immigrant families don’t usually encourage you to be an artist.”

“I love music so much. Song in the African culture is so much a part of everyday life. But I didn’t acknowledge my voice right away.”

A Curved Path Toward The Lagos Music Salon

After Somi returned from a year-and-a-half in East Africa, she headed to New York University to continue her studies. “When I was at NYU, it was for ‘performance studies’, but it was more of an anthropological look at performing not actually performing. There was that side me that loved my studies in anthropology. But by the time I went to NYU, I’d been singing for a while.

“Because I had finished school quite young, I decided to put graduate school off and see how New York felt for a while. For that first year in New York, I started working on songwriting, working at demos. Little things started happening that made it feel like the right path. But I still had a lot to learn.” Ultimately, Somi returned to graduate school at NYU while working on her second album, receiving a degree in Performance Studies.

To that point in her life as a musician and as a person, Somi had little contact with jazz. Unlike many of today’s young jazz musicians, she was not the product of a music school like Berklee, the New School, or the Manhattan School of Music. Not only was she not schooled in the particulars of jazz harmony and history, but she had not grown up enclosed in the canon of jazz performers. She had never been a teenager emulating Ella Fitzgerald (like, say, Jane Monheit or, more recently, Nikki Yanofsky), and she didn’t have the instinct to just channel one of the greats the way Madeleine Peyroux does.

Rather, Somi’s singing at the start of her career was already beyond category. Not that she didn’t need to grow into her best work (which The Lagos Music Salon clearly is, thus far), but she started recording music after she had already worked out the larger personal question of if and why she should be an artist. Her first significant record, Red Soil in My Eyes (2007 on World Village Records), already features a world music “hit” in “Ingele” (a tune written in an African language). It’s a document that suggests not an apprentice jazz singer, but rather a wholly singular artist who is finding refuge with jazz musicians because they have the kind of technique and openness to fit into her conception, not the other way around.

“I know some of that music, but I can’t just whip out all those songs in every key. I love that music, and I love those voices — Ella, Nina Simone. I listened to them all as I started to explore my voice. But I hadn’t listened to Ella until college. I just hadn’t been exposed to that.”

Red Soil in My Eyes includes work by guitarist Lionel Louke (a jazz player from Africa), jazz trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and a young jazz pianist, Toru Dodo. (That said, that recording also features and was produced by Herve Samb, a Senagalese guitarist, and includes a string trio.) “I started working more with jazz musicians and less with a soul and R&B players over time”, Somi explains, “The jazz community was so open, that that really excited me, the musical vocabulary and the ability to move between Western styles and African styles.”

But Jazz Isn’t Jazz Anymore Anyway, Is It?

Ultimately, Somi shrinks a bit from being labelled as a jazz singer, even if she did put out her last record before The Lagos Music Salon on the jazz label Palmetto, recorded live at New York’s The Jazz Standard.

“I don’t consider myself a jazz vocalist. I’ve been appreciative of the listening of the jazz audience. But my sense of community is more with the African arts community here in New York. I’ve been a part of creating a web of creative African voices. My closest friends an comrades are incredible African artists and writers.” Somi founded the non-profit organization New Africa Live in 2008 by creating bimonthly music series focused on African music in New York.

At the same time, Somi is clear that she doesn’t mean to push jazz or its community away. “I do feel a sense of community with the young jazz people who are here in New York. It’s not that I didn’t feel welcomed there, but I didn’t have that pedigree. I’m a songwriter more than anything.

“I’ve learned so much from the jazz musicians I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. They’ve challenged me to take more risks. What I love about jazz is the way it demands that everyone improvise and become part of the ensemble. It’s a great metaphor for my own social and cultural experience. I have all these malleable cultural roots. I have had to constantly improvise. An improvised state of being can be a comfortable one. Jazz gave me a comfortable home.

“What I love is that it’s open. I celebrate that openness. Being around incredible improvisers. I came from a classical background where you do what’s on the page. Being associated with jazz has been freeing.”

When I compare her work to that of the singular jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, she is kindly appreciative. “That’s really interesting that you compare me to Cassandra. I don’t know. I’m pleased to be compared to her, and to evoke that kind of voice. Thank you for that. I want to be clear: I do feel a sense of community with jazz musicians, but not like someone who went to all the jazz schools and concerts. I wasn’t a part of that.”

But, of course, Wilson herself stands both inside and outside the jazz orthodoxy. She has won the award as Downbeat magazine’s jazz vocalist of the year many times, but most of her work (and her most vital work) has been with ensembles and with material that draws from jazz history but also absorbs pop music, soul, hip hop, folk, avant-garde strains, and much more. By that standard, why shouldn’t Somi be considered a jazz singer too? At least of the new breed that really matters?

The Lagos Music Salon: Beyond Category

When Somi was offered a teaching position in Lagos in vocal performance through an advisor she had had at NYU, she was ready to make a change. “I was making a living as an artist at the time, but I was frustrated with whether I was going to forever coast in this place. I had all these questions about legacy and purpose.

“At the time I left, I had become frustrated by people saying about my music ‘It’s jazz, but it’s too African to be jazz and too jazz to be African.’ …I left for Lagos very unceremoniously. I left behind an agent and all that I had worked hard for. I was just leaving to focus on creating.

“And being in Lagos was freeing. I disappeared for a while. It gave me persecutive. There, you have to be honest. Being in Lagos, I was reminded of so many things that you take for granted.” In Lagos, Somi had the experience of writing, performing, and ultimately honing a set of new songs that were based on her life and her experiences there, songs that reflected the culture of Lagos, its people, and her own feelings as set off by so many contrasts.

“I knew I wanted to make a record, but I didn’t know what it would be about. I had people interested in getting involved. Hugh Masakela encouraged me. He is a huge mentor for me. We performed at a jazz festival in Lagos, and he really plugged me into his network. While I was there, I had offers from indie-labels, but I didn’t want to find myself in a situation where I was being asked to compartmentalize myself in strange ways. I decided to do my music independently, so I created the record first, using grants from arts organizations.

“I did some preproduction in Lagos, then I came back from Nigeria and I recorded my band here in New York. I started working with A&R man Brian Bacchus, someone who (no coincidence, I should assert) has also worked with Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson. “I told him I was only interested in a major label. The indie labels would not understand. Had I told anyone ahead of time that I was going to Lagos to make a record that would sometimes have a string quartet, then have Common rapping, then have jazz trumpet — I think people would not have understood or given me the budget.

“A few weeks later I was meeting with the people at Okeh. I feel lucky. There are so many amazing, talented folks. But I’ve been welcomed into the legacy of that that imprint. My creative choices have not been second-guessed. I now have a deal with them and I’m hoping to record for Okeh again.”

It’s hard to imagine that she won’t get another chance, because The Lagos Music Salon is superb, distinctive, thrilling. It contains some “found” sounds (Somi coming through customs into Nigeria, a story told on the street about a trickster monkey, women talking about their lives) that create a genuine sense of place, particularly when surrounded by the one essential element of the recording: rhythm.

“All the music is rooted in the rhythm of Lagos, the sound of that city. I really wanted people to always feel a sense of being propelled in some way. There a constant sense of Afro-beat on the record.” Not that The Lagos Music Salon is one long jam. There are songs of every stripe, but the constant is a percolating polyrhythm that could have come only from Africa.

“I’ve been telling people that I want them to listen to it as a whole body of work. I’m trying to evoke a sense of place, and that’s hard to do with just one song.”

Lyrically, The Lagos Music Salon covers a wide territory, with songs of social conscience, particularly with regard to the state of women in Nigeria, and songs of love. “People are talking about I’m delving into women’s issues. I’m not necessarily trying to do that, but I love being a woman and I love talking about the complexities of being a woman.

“When I first stated sharing this music, I worried it might be too heavy. We can be jamming, but then I’m telling sometimes a darker story. That irony — I’m dancing and grooving but I’m telling a complex story — that’s what Lagos can be. You’re in the midst of this magical, tropical place, but you’re constantly seeing these difficult circumstances. It was startling initially, and I was in a eupohoric and inspired state, being confronting by the grim realities of those in front of me.”

Bringing The Lagos Music Salon to the People

I don’t know how record sales are really toted-up these days, but if there’s justice out there, then The Lagos Music Salon is changing the number of people who have heard of Somi. Okeh is the “jazz” imprint for Sony, so the support is wholly different in terms of promotion and advertising. And in this case, the accolades are on target.

It’s not a Norah Jones-type breakout, but it ought to be something special. Your friends who don’t give a fig about jazz won’t hear it as jazz, and why should they? The truth is that this kind of music — absolutely beyond category, absolutely boundary-less, an assimilation of a dozen elements into one personal voice — is what jazz is all about today.

Somi begins her tour in support of the recording now — but as you might imagine, she’s doing it her own way. “I’m very excited about this. I decided to have a full-on tour that recreates the salon setting and experience I had in Lagos, which involved about 60 chairs in a friend’s art gallery. I’m going into nontraditional performing spaces, community centers, starting in mid-September. Some are jazz clubs, but others are arts spaces. I’m bringing the band from the record — Liberty Ellman on guitar, Toku Dodo on keyboards, drummer Otis Brown III, and then Ben Williams on bass. Then we’ll head to Europe.”

Wherever you are, The Lagos Music Salon is waiting for you. Somi has a song to groove for you.

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Above photo from Somi Music.com