Somi unveils an odyssey of song and soul in ‘The Lagos Music Salon’

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This week, East African singer Somi releases her first major-label album, The Lagos Music Salon, in the United States. Already, it is #1 on the iTunes Jazz Chart, #1 on the Amazon Jazz Vocal Chart, and #1 on the Amazon Pop Vocal Chart. The TED Blog caught up with the jazz-soul vocalist and songwriter—who was was born in Illinois to Rwandan and Ugandan parents and traveled frequently to East Africa—to talk about taking risks, navigating creativity within a multicultural life, and the artistic promptings that led her to explore the city of Lagos.

Tell us about your new album, The Lagos Music Salon. Does it refer to a real salon?

It was inspired by a recent 18-month creative sabbatical I took in Lagos, Nigeria. I called it a “salon” for a number of reasons — including a regular performance series I began while collaborating with fellow artists I was meeting in Lagos. But it’s also about creating a space for reflective conversations I was having with myself and with the city itself.

The idea for the performance salons came out of what I thought was a lack of intimate cultural spaces in Lagos that allowed for real artist-to-audience engagement. Even though Nigeria has this huge culture and music and art scene, the performance spaces are limited — shockingly so. I found that the performance spaces were mostly either these tiny places where the performer served as background music, or these hyper-produced, overpriced spaces, most of which were hotel conference rooms. At the time, I couldn’t find anywhere that regularly allowed for and encouraged the fundamental conversation between artist and audience.

While creating this new music, I wanted to be able to have that kind of concert and conversation with the Nigerian audience. At the time, I was writing my experience of the city, and I wanted to get critical feedback from from Lagosian people to know whether I was appropriately representing the experiences of Lagos living. I wanted my work to be something that Lagosians could be proud of, too. So I began producing salons. The very first one was more of an atelier — a showcase of work in progress. A friend of mine owns an art gallery, the African Artists Foundation, in a neighborhood called Ikoyi. We set up 66 chairs, had some hors d’oeuvres, organized a reception, and I performed all of the new material with my newly formed Lagos band. We were surrounded by all this beautiful artwork. Afterwards, we had champagne and cupcakes.

What was the initial response?

The initial response was wonderful — many people in the audience told me they connected with the work and really appreciated it. That feedback was critical for me, as was the experience of hearing it myself in a live context—experiencing how the work lived in my own body. I decided to produce more salons. I invited local artists to participate, and it just grew into this thing that happened every few months. It was a wonderful space for me to work through the music before going into the studio to record it. It also was a wonderful way of engaging the local arts community and establishing relationships with fellow musicians who were there. It was also an incredible learning experience in terms of taking off my often overly-cerebral, New Yorker jazz head to experience and create music on a more visceral level. I got to work with African musicians who have a very different kind of creative process than the New York-trained or conservatory musician might.

Above: watch the album teaser for The Lagos Music Salon, Somi’s major label debut on Sony’s OKeh imprint, released this week.

Why Lagos, specifically, and not a city in Uganda or Rwanda, where your parents are from?

There are a number of reasons. One, I was always very curious about the cultural energy there. I had been before to visit and to perform, and I realized how many parallels there were between Lagos and New York, in terms of size, energy, pace. It’s actually bigger than New York — 20 million people — and it’s always been a cultural giant on the African continent in terms of music, literature, fashion and visual arts. They’ve got the third largest film industry in the world.

So I was curious: Why is there so much cultural production in Lagos? What is it about the place that makes it such a cultural force? I mean, it’s partly a numbers game, because one out of every four Africans is Nigerian, but there’s something really special about the place. It’s not just about this moment, when everybody — no matter what industry — is looking at Africa as this new, emerging market to invest in. It’s about generations of cultural export and leadership. In the ’70s, every major label was actually in Lagos. Everybody passed through there, whether you’re talking about a Miles Davis or a Miriam Makeba or Nina Simone or Hugh Masekela.

I also moved there because I was curious about how, as an African woman, being in an African city might affect my lyrical, musical narratives and impulses. I decided not to go to my home cities of Kigali or Kampala because I didn’t want my experience colored by familiarity. I also thought I might have felt pressured by cultural expectations and obligations. The discovery of Lagos afforded me the privilege, and maybe freedom, of being a foreigner, and with that came a number of opportunities.  Basically, I wanted to go somewhere that gave me enough Africanisms to help me feel at home, but enough “foreignness” to keep my perspective totally fresh.

There are also substantial financial resources that the Nigerian government has committed to investing in the cultural sector. That was the first time I’d seen that in an African context. The World Bank came out with a report some years ago about how, in the global recession, creative economies in the developing world were the only place that they saw remarkable growth. The Nigerian film industry alone created about 100,000 jobs in 2011.

Did you have a residency there to start with?

Initially, I was invited to teach a residency at a university about five hours north of Lagos. I used that as a soft landing. After the first month I decided to stay for 15 months. While completing the residency, I found partnerships that gave me the support system necessary to set up there for the additional months. But I had no agenda when I moved. I just wanted to get out of New York, after having been there for a decade. I’d just lost my father, and I wanted to heal my heart. I also just walked away from my label, my management, my agent — all at once. I felt either I’d outgrown them, or we still just hadn’t gotten to this understanding of the larger story I’m trying to tell.

Artistically, I had so much more I wanted to say. As an African woman living in the United States, I have to negotiate my identity as an African and a Westerner, whereas on the continent, I am in a more transnational cultural space. I was curious how my work would shift once I was no longer culling over my cultural heritage through a diasporic lens. It’s a very romantic lens because you’re always sort of celebrating or privileging a longed-for place. Now, when I listen to Fela Kuti in Lagos, for example, I understand and hear it completely differently. That understanding could only have come from here. I loved his music from the perspective of an East African in New York. But now that I’ve experienced where the music is from, I realize there’s so much more that I had not heard or identified in the music before. So I think what I’m most proud of with this record is that there’s a keen sense of place that’s so fundamentally inside of it. I hope when people hear it, they feel as though they’ve traveled with me.

Above: watch the music video for “Last Song,” a track from The Lagos Music Salon. “If this were my last song, would you hum along? If this were my last song, would you try to remember everything?”

It’s a pretty courageous thing to do, to just move to another country.

Six months into it, I kind of had a freak-out moment. Like, what have I done? Did I just throw my career in the toilet? I felt like I was just out there in the wind, writing, and not knowing what I was necessarily there to say or talk about. Then, suddenly, I found that this body of work was emerging. It was mostly through my journals, snippets of melodies in the sound diary I was creating with my pocket recorder, or poetry that I had written. I realized it was, again, not about a particular genre. I mean, if you listen to the record, it’s got jazz, soul, some hip-hop, both traditional and popular Nigerian music, and other stuff. I decided not to censor those impulses.

I think, for me, that was what was the most frustrating for me as an artist prior to going to Nigeria—that folks always want to put you in a box. I understand that to commodify our art at times, people need to put labels on it. But that was very frustrating for me, because I am not just a jazz musician, I’m not only an African voice. I have all these influences. How can I not—as a half-Ugandan, half-Rwandan who grew up between Illinois and Zambia and who is living between New York and Lagos?

Speaking of genre, is this album a huge departure for you? You’re known in the jazz community — and this album is being released on Sony’s jazz-based imprint.

I would say my career has been rooted in the jazz community, but jazz is not my musical pedigree per se. There are a lot of purists who’d say I’m not really jazz, because I’m not that singer who sings a long list of standards. I’m a songwriter, first and foremost. The fact that I ended up in the jazz room is sort of a running joke in my band, because I’m always like, “How did we get here?” I don’t remember even hearing jazz until I was in college for the first time. My parents didn’t really listen to it.

What did they listen to?

My mom is a huge lover of Western classical music. She loves opera. She is also a great keeper of Western Ugandan folk songs. She has a beautiful voice. She’s not a professional singer, but she’s a beautiful singer. And my father listened to a lot of what you might call world music roots sort of stuff. I studied the cello, and listened to a lot of classical music as a young person, most of my life. We lived in Champaign, Illinois, which is a small university town. The radio offerings at the time in the ’80s weren’t so diverse.

I think that most African-Americans who have a more “indigenous” cultural and social African-American experience have a different engagement with jazz because it’s more their own cultural legacy. That’s not really the case for African immigrant families. There are a lot of Africans who love jazz, but there also many who just aren’t exposed to it. It’s very rare to have grown up listening to jazz as an African child.

Somi embraces Lagos with open arms. For more of Somi's images of Lagos, vist her site

Somi embraces Lagos with open arms. For more of Somi’s images of Lagos, vist her site

There’s African jazz, isn’t there?

There is, but it developed in very particular pockets on the continent — mainly South Africa and Ethiopia — and has very strongly rooted traditions. And it’s a very specific kind of sound. Interestingly, you’ll usually find very parallel or mirrored social and political movements between the African experience and the American experience in terms of civil rights. Especially South Africa: South African jazz developed in conjunction with its apartheid and civil rights movements, parallel to how it played out in the US. The reality, though, is that what we know as American jazz is directly linked to African music, so there really should be more of a conversation between here and there anyway.

How much did you notice that there was a disconnect between the musical heritage of your youth and that of your African-American peers?

It wasn’t that it was an issue. I think the reason I ended up ultimately being drawn to jazz was that it’s a genre that expects, if not demands, improvisation. And it also privileges the individual voice in an ensemble. Not to say that other genres don’t appreciate improv or don’t appreciate the individual members of a group, but the trademark solo improvisation in jazz — being willing to be a very clear individual voice in an ever-changing ensemble — always felt like an appropriate musical metaphor that reflects my own social malleability, and the improvisation necessary as a person whose life includes very layered social and cultural experiences. Maybe that’s why the jazz audience were the first to get what I’m doing. I find that when people don’t know how to define a type of music, we just call it “jazz,” right?

But I’ve also learned a great deal from the musicians I’ve surrounded myself with, and my band members, because I find that jazz musicians have the widest musical vocabulary. That’s probably because they’re always being asked to improvise, not just play what’s on the page, which was a huge departure for me as somebody who grew up mostly in the classical music idiom. It freed me in a lot of ways. It allowed me to be all of myself, to bring in the African influences, and make space for my Midwestern, maybe soul influences, and my classical roots, and not feel problematic. If anything, it made my music richer.

I began work on this album long before I was signed to Sony, and when I started I was prepared to put this record out entirely independently. I decided, “I’m just going to be all of myself. Whatever I feel like the music or my voice is asking for, or deserves, or wants to say, or how it wants to say it — that’s what I’m going to honor first. I’ll deal with how that fits into a commercial context when the work is done.” But I’m very happy that Sony is committed to helping me manifest that vision.

Somi and the colors of Lagos. Photo:

Somi and the colors of Lagos. Photo:

Any highlights on the album you’re excited about?

Sure. The record has two producers, from Lagos and New York, who complemented each other with kind of the jazz-head and the African pop sensibilities. Cobhams Asuquo, based in Lagos, is one of the most celebrated producers on the African continent right now. My New York-based producer Keith Witty is also a beautiful bass player and composer.

And I have a couple of really amazing special guests — Angélique Kidjo and Common, both of whom are Grammy-winning artists. I’m honored that they agreed to be a part of this, Angélique being like an older sister — originally from Benin — and Common being a wonderful MC. He’s on the song “When Rivers Cry,” which is about the environment, about the need for a committed green movement on the African continent. I wrote it when Wangari Maathai, the first African female Nobel Prize Laureate, passed away.

Angélique and I did a piece called “Lady Revisited,” a reinterpretation of Fela Kuti’s original “Lady,” but speaking out against domestic violence and legislation that’s not in favor of women in some parts of the African continent. Angélique has always been a real womanist and a champion of African female causes, so I wanted to have her voice on it.

Ambrose Akinmusire, a Nigerian-American trumpet player out of the West Coast, plays on “Brown Round Things,” a song about a loss of innocence. There’s just a whole cast of both American and African artists, both in Lagos and in New York.

What next?

I’m in the process of trying to create a salon tour, which I’m super excited about. Instead of doing typical shows in typical concert venues, I’m collaborating with a number of community art spaces to recreate the original Lagos-style salons. The first of these will happen in a few major US cities this September, but we’ll also collaborate with African arts communities in those cities. I hope to help people really experience what that first salon felt like, with the 66 chairs and the cupcakes, the truth-telling and the intimacy.

Overall, I hope this project helps people to think about African narratives in a more nuanced manner. I think people expected me to come back from Nigeria with a very particular sound. I want people to come away with an understanding that there are very singular, personal experiences and stories that need to be told. I’m hoping to play my part in championing some of those voices and stories.