A dark cocoa skinned ingénue stood on stage, adorned in black leather leggings and a red lace dress, illuminating the dimly lit underground New York haunt, Drom. Somi is her name. Her long locks gently fell on her left side as she read from a handwritten notebook. Her four piece band – drummer Otis Brown III, bassist Michael Olatuja, pianist Toro Dodo and guitarist Liberty Ellman – plaintively played a lilting sheet of melancholy while she read from the pad, telling a tale of a day in a far away land, yet the words placed the crowd, both seated and standing, right where she had been: “This is Lagos,” she stated. “This place might grant me eternal youth.” This spoken word account was the prelude to the dynamic aural transport that Somi was about to take Drom’s audience on. It was a trip she’d already taken.
From Illinois by birth, Somi is of Ugandan descent and has fused her heritage into her immeasurable craft as a vocalist and song sculptor. Her two previous albums, If the Rain Comes First (2009) and Live at Jazz Standard (2011) illustrate her magnificent penchant for gripping the listener’s ear and gaze with vivid storytelling over a bed of East African rhythms, via a voice that’s reminiscent of the coos and cries heard from an old New York club on 52nd street. In 2012, she took a journey to Lagos, Nigeria in search for inspiration. That journey has led to the creation of songs that captures the good, bad and ugly of the country through Somi’s observant perspective. The musicians who played during that “New Music Showcase” were the very same who recorded the songs they unleashed, expected to be for Somi’s forthcoming LP, tentatively titled The Lagos Music Salon.
The musical expedition began with the mid-tempo “Love JuJu.” Somi’s voice glided over Dodo’s piano refrain, a haunting crescendo of wails and squeals that wonderfully melded a three dimensional weariness with the celebratory tone of the fat groove provided by Brown, Olatuja and Ellman. After the rapid fervor of “Running,” the story took an ominous tone with “Two Dollar Day,” Somi’s damning political statement of Lagos’ oil taxes, tempered by a lyrical story of a Nigerian woman fiscally crippled to the point that she struggled just to find a way home. Aided by the beautiful background vocalists Ayanna George and Alicia Olatuja, Somi’s vocals are slippery and sinuous. The tension is further emphasized by Brown’s pounding of his toms, manipulating rhythmic timbres of congas and timpanis. Although Somi’s often been compared – smartly – to Sarah Vaughn and Miriam Makeba, “Two Dollar Day,” as did the succeeding songs of the set, suggested the influence of Sade, insouciantly emoting longing, impatience and submission all at once.
Following the brooding funk that was “Ankara,” Somi offered the audience some balance with “a love song,” in the form of “Ingele,” one of only three previously released songs included in the set. The compositions excitement drew from its razor-sharp tempo changes, propulsive break beats from Brown and a searing guitar solo for Ellman. It was evident when observing the band’s demeanor that they genuinely had a ball playing with each other. Things took another dramatic turn when Ellman, Alicia and Ayanna exited the stage briefly to make way for special guest trumpeter, Ibrahim Maalouf. Somi prefixed the song by saying it was about “a street in Lagos where broken women stand. This is a tale of their lost innocence.” Alone with trumpet and piano, Somi’s “Brown, Round Things for Sale” was an outcry of futility and fury. Maalouf’s serpentine horn only exacerbated the sadness shooting from Somi’s lips and Doro’s dragging chords.
The highlight of the night derived from the muse of Nina Simone. Somi explained how the late singer/songwriter’s music served as the “perfect soundtrack to the madness and magic of Lagos.” Going with that inspiration, she contorted Simone’s “Four Women” into “Four African Women.” Olatuja’s treatment of the original bass line was downright Jamerson-esque as he filled in the blanks between the chords with deft, dark improvisation. With her own lyrics describing the plight of all women who inhabit the dark continent, “Four African Women” had a extra jolt of poignancy and relevance that would undoubtedly strike a nerve in women of color in all the globes four corners.
After a 10 song set of dark grooves, somber stories, professions of loyalty and imaginative covers of Nina Simone and Fela, Somi and her band weren’t off-stage more than 10 seconds before Drom’s rabid crowd shouted for more. They obliged with “Enganjyani,” a stand out track from If the Rain Comes First. With sold out New York shows already to her credit, Somi’s reputation in the Big Apple was well documented, but this particular evening at Drom, especially with this line-up of musicians and singers, was less a show and more a declaration. Somi’s malleable vocal chords can be rivaled only by a small number of women in music today; so small that you wouldn’t your whole hand to count them.
Two Dollar Day
Still Your Girl
Brown, Round Things For Sale
Four African Women
Words by Matthew Allen (@headphoneaddict)