june 2, 2016
Somi’s 2014 album The Lagos Music Salon was born of an eighteen month sojourn in Nigeria. The New York-based ‘east African girl’ of Ugandan and Rwandan ancestry moved to the West African megacity looking to come to terms with her grief after the loss of her father.
interview by: roger noel
That healing journey resulted in a record of beauty and wonder transmuted from the sometimes enchanted, sometimes gritty reality of life in Lagos. ”It was a euphoric new place for me, an important journey. I wanted to tell honest stories in the spirit of gratitude,” she says. Relayed in Somi’s expressive and resonant voice, supported by top notch bandmates, interspersed with vignettes and street scenes - it’s a transcendent experience and calls for repeated listening. Get it soon.
GT: What are you listening to at the moment?
S: Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Dhafer Youssef, Hiatus Kaiyote, Gregory Porter and Kendrick Lamar.
GT: What are your favorite albums?
S: That’s a tough one. Perhaps Nina Simone’s After Hours album where she’s mostly solo at the piano. Perhaps because that’s the first album of hers that I bought and listened to.
GT: Who would you most like to work/collaborate with?
GT: What’s the most memorable gig you’ve been to or played?
S: Last fall in New York when performing at Carnegie Hall as a special guest of Hugh Masekela alongside the likes of Dave Matthews and Vusi Mahlasela, to celebrate 20 years of South African democracy. Harry Belafonte and Kathleen Battle congratulated me backstage after the performance. I floated home.
GT: Which new artist should we know about?
S: Well, if you aren’t familiar with any I’m listening to right now (above), that would be a good place to start. I also adore the work of fellow singer/songwriter Laura Mvula. She happens to be a dear friend, but I met her music first. She is deeply original and I cannot wait to see the direction she takes on her next album. Her last, Sing to the Moon, is one I’ll love for years to come. If you aren’t already hip to it, you should be.
GT: You were born in Champaign, Illinois. What was that like as a child?
S: It was idyllic at times and challenging at others. I’m sure you can imagine the challenges of being an African girl child in a small midwestern, predominantly white, college town in the 1980’s. Thankfully, my parents constantly gave my siblings and I enough confidence, love and encouragement to weather those challenges when they presented themselves.My parents also had a diverse and international community of friends who reminded us that our world view and cultural awreness should be wide and expansive. I’m thankful for that.
GT: Two of my favorite artists were involved in your album, Wangechi Mutu and Teju Cole. How did that come about?
S: Wangechi is one of my best friends - having met very early in both of our careers we continue to support each other as sisters in whatever way we can. I met Teju Cole through a mutual friend some years ago and I asked him to perform with me by reading some of his prose. We have stayed friends, and when I decided I wanted a Nigerian novelist to write the liner notes for the Lagos Music Salon, he generously agreed to do so.
GT: Is New Africa Live [the multidisciplinary African arts events organization she started in 2008] on hiatus?
S: In a way, yes. I simply don’t have the time to produce/run it in the way that I did before I moved to Lagos in 2011. Now that I’m back in New York, I am hoping to find balance between my own work as an artist and my love of supporting the work of others. That being said, I’m rebranding New Africa Live into an annual African arts festival in New York. Stay tuned!