Q & A ALERT: Jazz Muso Somi is on a Mission to Educate America About African Music

Going Places: Somi

Going Places: Somi

The US-based Ugandan-Rwandese performer on why she enjoys performing in SA, her decision to record her upcoming album in the hustle and bustle of Lagos and her Miriam Makeba musical

How were your performances in South Africa?
I always love performing in South African because I feel understood, maybe because of your deep jazz legacy. The audiences in both Cape Town and Joburg sang along; it actually felt like I was performing in front of my family. Because of the understanding that is here implicitly, I don’t have to be so explicit with the music – what it’s about and who I am as an artist. I generally love performing anywhere on the African continent.

What is the jazz scene like in the US currently?
It’s thriving. I live in New York City and that is the heart of jazz. That means world-class musicians are there, so it’s wonderful to be a part of that community. But as to whether it’s as commercially relevant as it was a number of decades ago ­– probably not. The music industry as a whole has suffered in the face of the evolution of digital music – especially live music forms such as jazz and classical. And this’s why I’m thankful for those live music venues all over the world that support the art form.

Somi_cover-51545211Why did you decide to go all the way to Lagos in search of inspiration for your third album?
I initially went to Lagos because I had a graduate advisor from New York University who was starting an international artist teaching residency and gave me the option to be involved for seven weeks up to a year, so I initially opted for the former option, but I ended up staying for 18 months.

If anything, my time in Lagos made me realise how important it was for me to be based in Africa, I get inspired in more profound ways (not that I don’t feel inspired in New York). I had been to Lagos in 2010 for a jazz festival and I realised there was a huge audience and that the city itself was interesting. I love that living there is a challenge. Lagos reminded me of New York with more of an African flavour. Nigeria has always been a cultural giant on the continent and I saw so many parallels between Lagos and New York such as the cosmopolitanism and the intellectual and arts communities.

As an African artist living in the West, you’re always calling home, you’re always reflecting on it from afar. I’d always visit home in Uganda and even perform, but I’d never really had a sustainable presence. I’m interested in doing more than just showing up and leaving. I’m seeking to be inspired. Plus, Nigeria is only seven hours from New York City on a direct flight. I loved that I was based there, but could still fulfill my tour commitments in the States and Europe.

What was the process of creating your third album The Lagos Music Salon like?
I wasn’t there to write an album necessarily. I’d just lost my father in 2010 and wanted to take time out to be still and heal my heart. I wanted to do something really brave because I felt like the last brave thing I’d done was to move to New York. I needed something to shake things up because I’d been coasting in this mid-career place. I also felt misunderstood, with people constantly asking if what I was doing was African music or jazz. I decided to step away from the musical infrastructure I’d built for myself to do something extreme.

I’m already a layered person with many global influences: this girl who’s half Ugandan and half Rwandese, who was born in Illinois in the USA and spent parts of her childhood in Zambia, who now lives between New York and Lagos and travels constantly.

A lot of the songs on The Lagos Music Salon are born out of my travel journal. I also kept a sound diary. When I wasn’t writing music I’d record everything from street sounds to conversations with immigration officers. I wanted people to have a sense of the place and the types of conversations I was having.

I started hosting music sessions at a gallery in Lagos where I’d share my music with the Nigerian audience – I couldn’t have left without having had that stamp of approval. Each song is meant to feel like a part of Lagos. There are songs from all sort of genres, there’s soul, hip-hop, Acappella, and soul with appearances from Common and Angélique Kidjo among others.

How would you describe your sound to someone who’s never heard of you before?

Somi-2Jazz, for me, means freedom because there’s so much improvisation needed. In my personal life as it is, I’m already a layered person with many global influences: this girl who’s half Ugandan and half Rwandese, who was born in Illinois in the USA and spent parts of her childhood in Zambia, who now lives between New York and Lagos and travels constantly. Jazz is that genre that is always open to anything. I see jazz as a metaphor for my own social and life experiences because I’m always changing and adapting.

Have you always been conscious of having an element of ‘Africanness’ in your music?
I made a non-commercial album that came out before my debut project. At the time I’d debated whether I should include elements of Africa in my music, but I was just so worried that people wouldn’t get it. But it turned out that whenever I did add those elements to what I was already doing, people were drawn to my sound. My first album is very much about me looking home for these influences. This was the first time I found the courage to explore African sounds and I haven’t stopped since.

How has your relationship with Africa changed your musical perspective?
As mentioned before, my approach to songwriting was very much: I need to write music that America will understand, but every time I added an influence from Africa, people’s interests would be piqued. I think the reason for this was that I was finally being my whole self. You cannot compartmentalise who you are as an artist; you need to constantly be honest with your audience. I feel like I only made a breakthrough when I started being honest about who I am as an artist. Of course there’ll always be those questions about who I am, where I’m from and my sound, but what I love about being in Africa is that I’m not an anomaly!

So, what’s next?
I’m working on a jazz musical about Miriam Makeba, which is why I stuck around a bit longer after my Joburg and Cape Town tour. I’ve been doing research and writing since the beginning of the year. Hugh Masekela, who’s a dear friend and an uncle-figure to me, has been helping out. It doesn’t have a release date yet only because I want to take my time with it. Miriam Makeba was a colossal figure in music and therefore a good amount of time needs to be dedicated to this project.

Source:Kemong Mopedi|DestinyConnect.com

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