Somi: An Ancestrally Rich Voice Electrifying the 21st Century
“One of the cool things about seeing Somi’s show Friday was that, even while the great voices are steadily falling silent, new ones are arriving – and she’s got one.”
Jon Streeter, Board of Directors for SF Jazz
Imagine yourself at the electrifying, eclectic and global intersection of Lagos Boulevard, Kigali Way and New York Avenue. Well that’s exactly where I found myself transported from to the Red Poppy Gallery smack dab in San Francisco’s Mission District, on a recent Saturday in September, with an intergenerational assembly of folks who came to feast on the voice of Somi. Her ancestrally rich and sometimes haunting voice scaled walls, brought blooms onto flowers and poured out into Folsom Street, where it cast a net of light out into the Universe. In a space not much larger than my living room and seating about one hundred people, she “Gingered Us Slowly” and had us testifying to “Four African Women,” her homage to the High Priestess of Soul Nina Simone. I first got a “taste” of her voice when she performed at the London wedding of Ashley Shaw Scott Adjaye and David Adjaye.
The range in her voice crosses deep rivers and cascades right into the ravines of your soul. She soothed my chakras when she dropped her tall brown frame into tribal movements to catch notes and bring them up out through her vocal chords, right after navigating them right up out of her heart. Mesmerizingly beautiful in voice and presence, she performed a ninety minute show that transported us through the lyrics of “Last Song,” Shine Your Eye” and “When Rivers Cry,” a piece filled with moral urgency, that she performs on her CD with the rapper Common. While “Two-Dollar Day” is a kind of soliloquy challenging the absurdity of making and trying to live on two dollars a day, “Brown Round Things” calls up the nefarious world of human trafficking of innocents. She is a marvelous singer-lyricist and wrote all of the songs performed on The Lagos Music Salon.
While it is clear that her music is infused with African, R&B, mid-twentieth century jazz and soul influences, an eighteen month stay in Lagos helped her create a powerful and vibrant “New African Jazz.” There is such a span of cultural history in her powerful voice. The spirits of Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone and Miram Makeba surely sat up and took notice, as Somi’s distinct style also conjured up theirs. On “Shine Your Eyes,” her voice also took me into moments with Joni Mitchell with some Sonia Sanchez riffin’ off her tongue.
It also takes great musicians to carry a singer’s vocals the distance and my word did they ever carry—all the way out there to an ancestral shout out to Nigerian icon Fela Kuti and an intergalactic wave to Sun Ra. Drummer Otis Brown III took the beats way deep across the centuries back home to the “Motherland.” Ben Williams “burnt” up that malachite looking bass and guitarist Liberty Ellman wove an improvisational touch. But it was pianist Toru Dodo, along with Tomi, who took my spirit to every corner of the Universe it needed to be in those moments. Dodo played that piano with every cell in his body and molecule in his mind. I could have sworn Somi and Dodo’s roots were up out of the same village. And at some point in the not too distant future, I can just see Bill T. Jones choreographing “Love JuJu#1 or the Alvin Ailey Company performing “Last Song.” I’m so eager to return to the global intersection of Lagos Boulevard, Kigali Way and New York Avenue and meet Somi there.
To find out more about Somi and her music go to http://www.somimusic.com/.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet. She blogs at www.daphnemuse.blogspot.com.