What do you get if you bring an Illinois-born black singer of Ugandan and Rwandan descent to Nigeria for one and a half years? If the artist is as skilled as the 31 year-old Somi and is given enough time, the answer would be something very similar to The Lagos Music Saloon: a sophisticated 18-track album which sometimes uses African influences as a basis for captivating jazz-soul pieces and sometimes goes exactly the other way round.
Which one of the two genres prevails might be difficult to tell, not only for the music critic, but also for the singer herself. “Some people see me as an African and not a jazz artist while others see me as a jazz artist influenced by Africa. But – she admits – I’m not focused on genre. My intent is to be honest with the songs and where they take me”. In the case of The Lagos Music Saloon, they literally took her to art galleries and virtually any other location that can take the place, in the former Nigerian capital, of the music clubs of the New York scene – where Somi was originally based. Meeting with local artists and inviting them to perform was the next step in developing the concept of what was later to become her studio album.
The Lagos Music Saloon, in fact, would not be the same without the contribution of quite a number of musicians with different backgrounds, starting with the world-famous Angelique Kidjo (featuring in Lady revisited), and the Japanese piano player Toru Dodo. They also include jazz guitarist Liberty Ellmann, Nigerian bassist Michael Olatuja, and drummer Otis Brown III, who has been part of Joe Lovano and Esperanza Spalding’s jazz bands, while Commons and his rap beat are heard in one of the tracks, When rivers cry. The whole of them gives further life, from a musical point of view, to an album that already benefited enormously from the context it was born out of: months of “writing in my journal” as Somi described them, after which she “discovered a body of work was emerging”.
It would be a futile exercise – and even a spite to the passionate and attentive listener – to detail all the musical influences that have their place in the album: it suffices to say that the Illinois-born singer is able to take the best out of any tradition or genre she comes in contact with, from afro-beat to jazz, paying homage, among others, to Fela Kuti (for instance with the vocals and arrangement of Lady revisited) and Nina Simone (Four African Women is clearly inspired by the late American singer’s Four Women). Even the spoken parts – for instance the first track, which has no music at all, being instead a recording of Somi talking with a customs officer, or the final one, “Shine your eye” – enrich the album, putting it in context and giving to the musical parts more depth, so to say.
When coming to the lyrics and the themes of the songs, Somi proves to be at least as eclectic as she is in the musical field. The album’s main theme appears to be love – both in its sensual and sentimental aspect – even if it is sometimes treated in an unconventional way. However, also socially relevant themes are addressed, above all that of women’s condition: Four African Women – mentioned above – deals with the stories of four different people who experienced hardships in their lives, including genocide and FGM; Brown Round Things is about the condition of prostitutes, whom Somi saw on the streets of Lagos and Two-Dollars Day details the life of a widow who, in order to raise her children, is forced to work hard and even to beg. Finally, on a different plan, When Rivers Cry is a reflection on pollution in Africa.
If there is a trait d’union between all the different tracks, it is the artist’s voice, which, without any doubt, keeps up with the rest of the album’s qualities. The comparison that has been made with Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba’s voices may seem exaggerated to some. Nevertheless, even the most skeptical critic should admit that Somi’s singing skills give the most important contribution to that sound that makes one want to listen to her album again and again. (D.M.)