January 16, 2019
A case can be made that all Western popular music can trace its origins to Africa. Even if that's a bit of an exaggeration, it's not when it comes to vocalist/songwriter Somi. She was born in Illinois, but her parents were immigrants from Rwanda and Uganda. Wanting to get back to her roots, she spent a year and a half in Lagos, Nigeria to better understand the continent and its culture. Even though neither she nor her parents were from Nigeria, she still fell in love with Lagos and it's obvious that its music has strongly influenced hers. Wednesday night, Somi brought her African rhythms and sensibilities to Denver for an inspirational set showcasing her voice and her songs.
Somi has been compared to Dianne Reeves
. In terms of her vocal quality, that's a pretty close parallel. Her voice is strong, dynamic, graceful and has a wide and powerful range. However, whereas Reeves most of the time
tends toward straight ahead jazz and selects jazz standards to cover on a regular basis, Somi writes most of her own material and veers a bit further from the jazz mainstream. Reeves' forays into a more rhythmic, African sound are closer to Somi's sound than typical Reeves fare. Songs like "Mista" and "Endangered Species" are indicative. Somi also tends to focus more on social justice issues.
Other points of comparison are Sade
and Erica Badu in the sense that both of those singers excel at setting a cool, introspective mood. However, neither of those singers has the power and range of Somi. Angelique Kidjo
, whom she's recorded with, as well as Nina Simone
and Lizz Wright
are yet more singers in the same general realm.
Somi picked up a lot in Lagos. Her music bears witness to the sound of Fela Kuti
, one of Africa's most popular musicians of the 20th Century, long-time Lagos resident and pioneer of Afrobeat. Her songs' subject matter draws heavily from her time in Lagos as well. She introduced her song "Ginger Me" as based on a common Lagos expression meaning to essentially butter someone up. Her album version of the song features the backing of a full band, but Wednesday night's rendition was a duet with just her vocal accompanied by Toru Dodo
on electric piano.
Dodo spent most of the evening on the grand piano pounding out several intense and sometimes quirky solos whenever he had the chance. Jahmal Nichols
switched back and forth between acoustic and five string electric bass. For his solos, he favored the electric bass for excursions that sounded more like guitar solos. The fourth member of the quartet, Otis Brown, III on the drums churned out the African poly-rhythms throughout the evening.
Social justice was a theme for several of her songs. "Two Dollar Day" was about the government's increase in oil prices during her time in Lagos. Nigeria is an oil-rich country, yet the government hiked the prices, causing widespread hardship among the city's large and struggling lower class. In "I Remember Harlem," she bemoaned the gentrification of New York City
's famous black neighborhood and how many long-time residents were being pushed out by the escalating prices. Hmm, there's one that hits Denver right between the eyes.
Often, she employed wordless vocals and on occasion reached into a soaring, majestic space somewhat reminiscent of 1990s Pat Metheny
. She also employed other vocal effects like heavy breathing and various mouth noises. But it was all deployed with extreme good taste and sophistication.
Obviously, Somi is a talent deserving wider recognition.