This post is written by Moses Serubiri
When Somi sings, what has been classified as smooth jazz, with silky vocal work, offers a meditation on difficult migrations and the loss of cultural heritage. The foil of smooth jazz allows for easy listening alongside a potent reflection on African identity. She calls it “holistic new African soul.”
The stories of diaspora Africans, specifically in the second half of the 20th century, are explored by Somi, an American jazz singer with Rwandan and Ugandan roots. Besides the well-known music of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Angelique Kidjo or Baaba Maal, few musicians have dealt with this experience of migration and loss.
Her second album, Red Soil in My Eyes, poignantly mediates the memory of home with this familiar dislocation, and was a bulwark for my own bad travels in Malaysia. Where racial segregation against blacks was isolating, Somi’s voice strengthened me: “The ancestors are calling me / I can see Acacia trees” on Red Soil in My Eyes, and “Mwana wangye garuka garuka (My child return, return home)” on If The Rains Come First.
On the cover of Red Soil, Somi wears a flowing satin dress and waist length dreadlocks. Beach sand pours from her hands, and escapes into the wind. The image remains glamorous while hinting at the complex philosophy behind the album.
The great success of Somi’s music is the masterful combination of easy listening and intelligent discourse. Songs like Ingele, Red Soil in My Eyes, and African Lady musically borrow from the torch singing style of American singers like Sarah Vaughan and Ethel Waters, while incorporating African languages and lyrics. The mainstream success of Somi’s music can be attributed to its high-culture jazz and classical singing, and her band’s condensation of both African and Jazz rhythms. Somi has worked with Hugh Masekela, Angelique Kidjo, and Common.
Influenced by recent African history, Somi’s albums move between the uncomfortable domains of self-cognition, desire, and loss. Her musical travels in Paris, Johannesburg and Lagos demonstrate a Pan Africanism of cosmopolitan nature. In this sense, Somi was born to uphold her father’s reputation for travel and academic acumen, as he moved from East Africa to the U.S to Zambia and back to the U.S- with likely many places in between.
She was classically trained in both voice and cello. Yet Somi’s oeuvre hardly leans towards the American songbook, rooted in reinterpretations of African music via contemporary jazz. Much of her musical output has an emphasis on lyrical poetry (Wallflower Blues, Hot Blue) and Spoken Word (When Rivers Cry).
Indeed, we are only witnessing the evolution of a musician between two continents, and whose music shades light on the in-between of Africa and America. Her live performance at the historical Village Vanguard in New York, includes a favorite of my Bob Marley songs, ‘Waiting in Vain’. In a stripped-down arrangement with only guitar and voice, it brings the listener to hear Marley’s huge vocal lyricism, and just how intimate his work was. In her own rendition, we recognize the immediacy of Somi’s vocal abilities and her interpretative powers–the mark of a real jazz singer.