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Somi: Petite Afrique

Dan Bilawsky By

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Somi's debut on the Okeh imprint—The Lagos Music Salon (Okeh, 2014)—pulled no punches. It tackled tough topics within an African framework, bringing hard truths to bear in soulful fashion. This follow-up is equally impactful, but it shifts focus stateside, eyeing the titular Harlem neighborhood that Somi calls home now.

In addressing life along 116th Street, Somi opens eyes to the cultural ideals and struggles associated with the working class immigrants that reside there while also touching on broader social issues. As with its predecessor, Afrocentric thoughts dominate. But New York, not Nigeria, is the scene for these stories.

The album opens with modern field recordings and subway sounds that track toward "Alien," Somi's brilliant repurposing of Sting's "Englishman In New York." While Sting used it to lightheartedly play British standards against American society, Somi uses it as a more somber and serious vehicle to express issues of xenophobia and isolation felt by the African community in America. It's but one of many instances where cool musical foundations support heavy issues.

As the program continues, Somi's blend of musical sleekness and topical potency continues to carry the day. There's a taste of Afrobeat nouveau in "The Wild One," a slow and soulful "They're Like Ghosts" that's tied to love and yearning for what's been lost, a spryly bounding "The Gentry" that invites vocalist Aloe Blacc to join in on the telling of a tale about the showdown between Harlem's past and present, a positive "Holy Room" that serves as a testament to faith and love while also addressing Islamophobia, and a "Like Dakar" that bridges Mother Africa and Petite Afrique, touching on highs and lows painted in memories.

While Somi's mesmerizing vocals are the delivery system that gets each and every point and song across, her band is every bit as important to this project. In bringing together Liberty Ellman's mutable guitar and Toru Dodo's glazed chords, placing them atop vibrant yet understated grooves provided by bassist Michael Olatuja and drummer Nate Smith, adding a touch of strings or a standout guest to color the mix, and occasionally augmenting the band with a horn section that includes trumpeter Etienne Charles, alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, and multi-reedist Marcus Strickland, Somi creates a sonic recipe for success.

The music and the messages on Petite Afrique prove to be inextricably linked, and it shouldn't be any other way. Somi has crafted another smooth-flowing collection that's both affecting and intoxicating.

Track Listing: Disappearing Act I; Alien; Black Enough; The Wild One; They're Like Ghosts; The Gentry; Kadiatou The Beautiful; Holy Room; Disappearing Act II; Let Me; BLUE; Go Back To Your Country (Interlude); Like Dakar; Midnight Angels.

Personnel: Somi: vocals; Liberty Ellman: guitar; Nate Smith: drums; Toru Dodo: piano, Rhodes; Michael Olatuja: bass; Keith Witty: percussion, guitar; keyboards, sample programming; electric bass; Marika Hughes: cello (2); Etienne Charles: trumpet (3, 6), mouth percussion (3), percussion (6, 10, 13); Jaleel Shaw: alto saxophone (3, 6, 13); Marcus Strickland: tenor saxophone (3, 6, 13), bass clarinet (13); Mazz Swift: violin (5); Dana Lyn: violin (5); Jessica Troy: viola (5); Aloe Blacc: vocals (6);

Title: Petite Afrique | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Okeh

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