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Issue 1084

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Feature

Somi: First Impressions

Somi @bluesandsoul.com
Somi @bluesandsoul.com Somi @bluesandsoul.com Somi @bluesandsoul.com Somi @bluesandsoul.com

Described as âan engaging, melodic slice of New African Soulâ, âIf The Rains Come Firstâ - the current, third album from New York-based singer/songwriter Somi - finds the eclectic songstress singing in both English and three East African languages, while merging the influence of classic soul with her African roots under the aegis of producers Michele Locatelli and Michael Olatuja.

A truly multicultural woman, Somi was born in Illinois, USA to immigrants from Rwanda and Uganda before spending her early childhood in Zambia. Later returning to Champaign, Illinois with her parents in the Eighties, her musical studies began with playing the cello at primary school before - encouraged by her motherâs love of song - moving on to singing in church and eventual roles in her universityâs musical theatre productions. Meanwhile, after graduating from The University Of Illinois with degrees in Anthropology and African Studies, she next spent a year doing medical anthropological research in Kenya and Tazania before moving to New York in August 1998, where she soon became a fixture on the cityâs underground live soul music circuit.

With Somi releasing her first album - âEternal Motiveâ - independently in 2003, her original and hybrid sound soon began to gain international attention from both jazz and world music audiences. Which in turn led to her second LP - 2007âs âRed Soil In My Eyesâ - garnering Somi her first international distribution deal, with its offshoot single âIngeleâ remaining a fixture on the US World Music Charts for several months. Which ultimately led to her, in 2009, signing a record deal with German-based independent label Obliq Sound. For whom the aforementioned, current âIf The Rains Come Firstâ marks her first release.

âI chose the title âIf The Rains Come Firstâ mostly because I was going through so many different things on a personal levelâ, begins a personable Somi from her New York home: âYou know, I was trying to figure out the sort of things life throws at you, and trying to understand that sometimes the challenges can end up being blessings - and vice versa. I mean, when I was growing up m mother would always tell me that where she comes from - Uganda - people always talk about the rain being a blessing. Whereas in the Western world they donât really celebrate rain in the same way. Itâs more âOh, itâs terrible weather!â⦠So, with âIf The Rains Come Firstâ, Iâm basically saying âHowever we choose to perceive the rain, ultimately lifeâs lessons can bring you both blessings and challengesâ⦠You know, just like we accept the rain and all it brings, we need to open ourselves up to lifeâs blessings and challenges in much the same way.â

âThen musically with this album I wanted to explore jazz and soul, while also bringing in some African sensibilitiesâ, she continues: âYou know, because those are the three styles of music Iâve been mostly influenced by over the years, I felt that was the best way I could paint a picture of who I am. And, while lyrically the songs are very much story-based, I also wanted to focus on a strong sense of HUMANITY and to have some type of PERSONAL connection in there. So that the record overall can feel more like an intimate exchange between myself and the listener.â

Indeed, with standout tracks on âIf The Rains Come Firstâ ranging from the reflective âJewel Of His Soulâ (motivated by Somiâs Parisian encounter with a homeless Senegalese man who had been an intellectual in his homeland) to the jazzily percussive âKuzungukaâ (a celebration of her fatherâs successful fight against cancer), a definite highlight occurs on the gently loping, mystical âEnganjyaniâ. Which prestigiously features iconic, Grammy-winning South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela - a long-time Somi fan who has become something of a mentor.

âOh, I first met Hugh in 2005, when he was playing in New Yorkâ, recalls Somi fondly: âI went to see him at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where he was doing a huge outdoor concert. And, though there were lots and lots of people there, I eventually got to meet him backstage. And, being as charming and disarming as he is, he was like âWhere are you from and what do you do?â... You know, heâs the type of person that, whenever youâre talking to him, makes you feel like heâs really interested in you. So I told him I was from East Africa, he said heâd been to both Uganda and Rwanda⦠So then I told him I was a vocalist, I gave him my CD - and he promised to listen to it... Then, about six months later, I got an e-mail from his assistant saying heâd love to work with me and support me in my career! And since then - with him living in Johannesburg and me in New York - weâve been trying to find a way to fit something into our schedules. So, when this album came up, I asked him if heâd guest on it - and he was generous enough to DO so!â

Interestingly, with âIf The Rains Come Firstâ boasting an impressive African rhythm section including Nigerian bassist Michael Olatuja; Ivorian percussionist Madou Kone; and Senegalese guitarist Herve Samb, recording sessions took place in both Paris and New York: âWell, I chose to work in Paris mainly because theyâve got the best African music sceneâ, explains Somi: âYou know, theyâve got a long history and a huge community of African jazz musicians in particular. So I wanted to work with the best players who were there, and really take in all that music and energy.â

âPlus, because I love Paris for all it has to offer in terms of culture, art, fashion and music, I also wanted to just soak up that whole creative vibe. So I did end up writing and recording about half of the record there. And the fact that the label (Obliq Sound) also has an office in Paris did obviously help logistically too. And then I wanted to record the OTHER part of the record in New York because itâs been my home for around 10 years, and obviously the greatest jazz musicians LIVE here! So I definitely wanted to take advantage of that. Plus I also wanted to be able to play with a lot of the long-term collaborators and partners that I already have in my band here... So yeah, I guess I just wanted to have the best of BOTH worlds!â

Indeed, with Somi also being the founder of (and still running) New Africa Live - a New York-based non-profit arts organisation committed to producing events that celebrate contemporary African artists - she feels her well-grounded African roots continue to play a significant role in making her the cross-cultural artist she is today: âYeah, when I was growing up in America my parents always taught me that, while I shouldnât deny the place I was growing up in, my origins were actually from somewhere way beyond Illinois and that there is a greater world out thereâ, she explains: âWhereas I found that a lotta the people I was growing up with in Illinois DIDNâT have that kind of broad world view. And I think the fact that I travelled so much with my parents when I was young, has definitely informed my work as an artist in the sense of me having - and always trying to put forth - a global story.â

âPlus I think itâs also the reason why my audience too has been so diverse!â, she adds, as our breezy chat nears its end: âYou know, itâs not black or white, itâs not young or old... Instead itâs very kind of cosmopolitan and diverse. So itâs actually a wonderful feeling to know that music has been that vehicle thatâs enabled me to connect with people from all sorts of different backgrounds. And I like to think the REASON why my music has been able to do that is probably very much rooted in the fact that I AM from so many places, and that I HAVE had so many different types of life experiences.â

Somiâs album âIf The Rains Come Firstâ is out now through Obliq Sound
Words PETE LEWIS

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