Somi vivid and provocative at London launch

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The choice of the Ace hotel in the fashionista’s paradise that is Shoreditch in east London for the launch of a key ‘breakout’ artist of the year may have raised one or two eyebrows. But the venue was actually spot-on. The low lighting, clear acoustics and intimate atmosphere greatly served Somi’s meaningful anecdotes as well as the songs themselves, and the American singer proved quite emphatically that she has the kind of talent that warrants her graduation from an indie [Obliq] to a major label [Sony/OKeh].

All of which should provide the profile and PR muscle to enlarge her fanbase. In any case, Somi’s The Lagos Music Salon has the standard of writing – above all the lyrics as well as melodies – and vocal performance that make it clear the loudening buzz around the singer is anything but hollow. Furthermore, the presence of a backing band that includes current or former members of ensembles led by Henry Threadgill, Joe Lovano, Soweto Kinch and Sylvain Luc – guitarist Liberty Ellman, drummer Otis Brown III, bassist Michael Olatuja and keyboardist Jerri Leonide – says much about Somi’s deep engagement with jazz and the substantial place of improvisation in her aesthetic. Yet Africa, and more precisely Nigeria, is the conceptual foundation for this latest project, and the songs essentially act as ‘reality poems’ that reflect the close observations that Somi made during an extended sojourn in Lagos.

Alternatively, the music can be seen as a kind of audio diary of her experiences, and more importantly, conversations with the locals, all of whom are vividly depicted in thought-provoking texts. That said, all of the players, particularly Ellman, are given a wide berth for soloing that enhances the tonal lustre and phrasal richness of Somi’s voice. In fact, the electro-acoustic resonance of the guitar matches her sharpness and precision to a tee, slightly recalling the alliance of Romero Lubambo and Dianne Reeves, surely one of Somi’s key role models. Then again Nina Simone looms large on Four African Women, a kind of ‘motherland’ adaptation of the legend’s signature piece. Artful in her use of African rhythms and Fela references, Somi has managed to capture the suffering and smiling of Lagos in her original writing, and if there are two pieces that cover that spectrum they are ‘Two Dollar Day’ and ‘Ginger Me Slowly.’        

They are delivered with an authenticity and attention to detail that mark out the singer as an artist intent on questioning as much as creating. Bigger venues and greater recognition beckon aplenty.

– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photo by Roger Thomas