Few contemporary albums bare as particular a narrative as The Lagos Music Salon. The new album by the superb chanteuse Somi, finds her breaking new ground with a hybrid style of music that organically integrates the essence of jazz and soul with the musical depth of her African heritage. “It’s the first time ever that I put all other pursuits on hold to focus solely on the creative process,” says Somi, who decided to move to Lagos, Nigeria from her New York home base without a game plan but with a passionate desire to find a new direction for her vision and voice.
The Lagos Music Salon marks Somi’s major label debut for Sony’s OKeh Records and features a range of originals that are sublimely melodic, percussively textured. A socially informed and adventurous vocalist, Somi sings with a soulful beauty about her experiences in Lagos. While there, she kept a journal of her observations and collaborated with a community of musicians, writers and artists who helped her to envision what would becomeThe Lagos Music Salon.
The album covers a broad swath of styles and features a number of carefully matched guest performances. These include a fast-paced groove with Afro-pop sensibilities on the Fela Kuti-inspired “Lady Revisited” with Angelique Kidjo, and a rap-inflected cinematic reflection on Africa’s pollution, “When Rivers Cry,” that features Common.
Also in the mix are field recording snippets, including an exchange at the Lagos airport with an immigration officer, heated rally cries from the Occupy Nigeria protests, and a parabolic story of an over-skilled monkey.
“I’m excited about this album,” Somi says. “I allowed myself to abandon the boundaries of my comfort zone, but that gave me the room to explore and play with new ideas and inspiration. Some people see me as an African artist and not jazz, while others see me as a jazz artist influenced by Africa. But I’m not focused on genre. My intent is to be honest with the songs and where they take me.”
Born in Illinois, the daughter of immigrants from Uganda and Rwanda, Somi’s dramatic Salon story started ironically and sadly on the release date of her 2009 album, If the Rains Come First, when her beloved father passed away.
“I had to weather the storm of his passing,” Somi says. “The loss was so sobering that I began to question my own life’s legacy and path. My dearest mentor Hugh Masekela knew about my personal loss and subsequent desire for change. He also knew that, more than ever, I wished I could move ‘home’ to Africa. Something about the idea seemed like it might be a way to get closer to my father’s spirit and my own heart. It was Uncle Hugh that reminded me that to be a musician is to be a global citizen and that I should always listen to my heart should it long to travel. ‘Stop thinking about it as a move,’ he said, ‘Think of it as an opportunity to spend time with another part of your global audience.’ That’s when I decided to make the bold choice of moving to Lagos. A true Africanist, I believe my father is proud of that choice.”
While she spent part of her youth in Africa with her parents, Somi hadn’t lived there since her first year out of college when she landed a medical anthropology research fellowship in Kenya and Tanzania. After frequent holiday visits and touring extensively on the continent (visiting over 12 countries with her band), Somi fell in love with Lagos, “where there’s a huge volume of cultural production, including literature, film and fashion – let alone music,” she says. “For an artist, it is a very exciting place. There’s an energy there that reminds me of New York. Twenty million people live there—it’s cosmopolitan, fast, hard and yet so inspiring.”
While Somi’s goal was to live in Lagos for 15 months she ended up being there for 18 months. She began her journey with an international teaching artist residency at a university in Ilorin, Nigeria while also doing occasional European shows to keep her career visible. After six months, Somi began to realize the impact of her choice to be in Lagos. “Initially I was a little panicked,” she says. “Was I going to disappear? Would people forget about me? But after months of writing in my journal, I discovered a body of work was emerging.”
Somi set out to work on her new material, but Lagos doesn’t have the cultural infrastructure of small clubs like New York. “I needed to develop my work and test it on Nigerian audiences,” says Somi. “So I started producing intimate salons at art galleries and other nontraditional venues in Lagos where I would perform my new music. It grew into a series where I’d invite local artists to perform as well. That work greatly enriched my experience, challenged me to think more about African notions of cultural intimacy, and gave birth to The Lagos Music Salonconcept.”
Somi accumulated a collection of music steeped in the culture of Lagos and collaborated with two colleagues who share co-producer credit with her on The Lagos Music Salon: Lagos musician Cobhams Asuquo (who happens to be blind and is impressively self-taught) and New York’s Keith Witty. “Cobhams has a deep understanding of traditional African music as well as strong pop sensibilities,” Somi says. “And Keith, the modern jazz head on the project, made sure the artful sense of the music was always privileged amidst the African pop influences.”
In New York, they assembled Somi’s core band: drummer Otis Brown III, pianist Toru Dodo, guitarist Liberty Ellman, background vocalist Alicia Olatuja, and bassist Michael Olatuja. Guests to the ensemble include acclaimed Nigerian-American trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire who blows a moving, melancholic solo through “Brown Round Things,” an original lamenting the prostitutes Somi observed in Lagos; and rising-star trumpeter,Etienne Charles, who arranged the horn section for the celebratory, pop-tinged “Akobi: First Born S(u)n.”
Somi weaves through the collection of captivating songs with a socio/cultural poignancy. The R&B-vibed “Two Dollar Day” tells the story of a domestic worker Somi met during the 2012 Occupy Nigeria protests and who struggles because of the oil-rich government’s decision to hike fuel prices 200 percent. While the provocative “Four. One. Nine.” takes its name from the police criminal code for the Nigerian email swindles, Somi likens the scam to fraudulent love affairs, while a friend offers her a tongue-in-cheek reprimand about unsavory men. The most dynamic piece is the bass line-driven “Four African Women,” inspired by a Nina Simone original. It’s a sketch of four African women who each experienced a different hardship—genocide, skin bleaching, circumcision, prostitution.
Other highlights include the percussive, string quartet-colored tune “Ankara Sundays,” the sobering “Last Song” and the gently swinging love song “Ginger Me Slowly” about playfully telling forthright men how to romantically treat their woman. There are also two versions of the upbeat original “Love Juju.”
“Juju is African magic,” Somi explains. “Throughout the album, I’m singing about the magic of Lagos and the spell it cast on my heart.”
A TED Global Fellow and also founder of the New Africa Live nonprofit that champions African artists, Somi has for the last decade carved out a career of singing and being an activist. On The Lagos Music Salon, the best album of her young career, she magically combines the two facets of her life. As for her adopted city, she says, “It was a euphoric new place for me, an important journey. I wanted to tell honest stories in the spirit of gratitude.”
Sony Music Masterworks comprises the Masterworks, Sony Classical, OKeh, Portrait, Masterworks Broadway and Flying Buddha imprints. For email updates and information please visit www.SonyMasterworks.com