February 15, 2021. As a first-generation American and the daughter of a Rwandan father and Ugandan mother, who was raised mostly in Champaign, Illinois and partly in Zambia, the vocalist Somi has long had to navigate multiple worlds and identities at once.
The easy narrative is to frame this as an opportunity to feel lost and constantly alienated in a world that’s constantly trying to classify. But Somi the musician has used her multiculturalism as her greatest asset; the vast breadth of her musical and cultural fluency makes it impossible for her to be placed in a discrete bin. And it makes it impossible for listeners of any race, ethnicity, age, and gender to engage with her music without finding something there that resonates deeply and personally.
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But Somi seems less interested in brand building and more interested in setting her truths to music, and stating them with forceful elegance from the place where she feels most comfortable—a packed concert hall’s stage. That’s why she’s titled this latest live album, her first backed by a big band, Holy Room.
The holy room here? Frankfurt’s famed old opera house, Alte Oper, in May 2019. It’s Somi presenting two sets of original compositions—most sourced from 2014’s The Lagos Music Salon and 2017’s Petite Afrique— arranged by John Beasley for the celebrated Frankfurt Radio Big Band, whom he also conducts.
Interestingly, Somi never intended the recording to be released as a live album. With an original musical set to debut in March 2020 and a busy summer touring schedule to follow, there was simply no time to promote a new album. Then COVID-19 made quick and ruthless work of Somi’s carefully laid plans, and suddenly the thing most cathartic and therapeutic for her—performing—was taken away. In search of the next best thing, she remembered that May 2019 date in Frankfurt. And she remembered that it had been recorded for broadcast by German public radio.
“I was quite overcome when I listened to it,” she recalled in the album’s press release, “because I miss performing so much. I could feel the energy, the centering that happens on stage. The magic.”
That’s why, for as great as so many of the studio albums produced during the pandemic have been, one could reasonably argue that it’s live albums like this that bring the most value right now. They bring us closest to that which we miss and yearn for most: live music—and, more specifically, that positive feedback loop of energy that elevates musicians, intoxicates audiences, and inextricably links both in sublime conspiracy.
The connection between artist and audience is apparent here from the first cut, “Kadiatou the Beautiful,” a poetic piece about an African hair-braider who doesn’t realize her own beauty. In the tradition of poetry in its purest form, Somi doesn’t just sing— she chants, she pants, she yawps, she exhorts. It’s abstract and interpretive and might initially feel foreign to the Western sonic palate. That’s par for the course with Somi, who brings a unique citizen-of-the-world type of avant-garde populism to every song she writes. When she finishes, the German audience erupts in delight. Somi thanks them and lets them know what’s in store: “We’re just gonna tell some stories.”
That’s not false modesty from Somi. Her vocal capabilities—not just her range but her dynamics—are astounding, but her home base as an artist is as a storyteller. Do not mistake her for a tune-maker; music is a powerful and necessary means, yet it is still just a means.
Beasley’s arrangements prove he gets what and whom to foreground. The 15-piece band colors, texturizes and amplifies Somi’s narratives without ever making the story about itself, and Beasley is masterful at governing this powerful machine—and knowing when not to. Like on “Black Enough,” where the band drives the action with forceful yet quiet precision until Hans Glawischnig (bass) and Toru Dodo (electric piano) drop the hammer with funky distortion-drenched solos. Make no mistake, this band’s in control but it lets its horses stride freely on the Autobahn before settling back into a comfortable cruising speed.
Elsewhere, Somi fearlessly charges headlong into thorny political issues, commenting on the exploitative excesses of capitalism on “Two Dollar Day” and the community-fracturing byproducts of gentrification on “The Gentry.” But she’s never didactic, and she doesn’t wield her art as a bludgeon. This isn’t a graduate-level sociology seminar, and her message isn’t characterized by intellectual abstraction; she tells human stories, set to music, and some of them reflect sad realities.
If you take away just two tunes here, let them be “Ankara Sundays,” and “Alien.”
The former is a sprawling piece of contemporary R&B redolent of the best of Lauryn Hill. Glawischnig (bass), Jean-Paul Höchstädter (drums), and Dodo (piano), ground this rhythmically and emotionally complex piece written in 12/8, while Somi’s lyrics transport the listener to Lagos, where a woman, who despite personal and circumstantial struggle, dutifully dons a smile and her colorful Sunday best in a show of everyday courage.
The latter, meanwhile, is a dark and jaw-droppingly unforgettable re-imagination of Sting’s “Englishman in New York.” It’s here we get the most unadulterated taste of Somi’s true star quality, as a lyricist, as a vocalist, and as an absolute force of a performer. Hers might, ultimately, be a talent best suited to a Broadway stage. In the meantime, if Holy Room brings home a Grammy this year—it’s already been nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album—this one will be a big reason why.