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The Latest Stop On Jazz Singer Somi's Journey


You could think of Somi as the quintessential artist citizen of the world. Born in Illinois to parents of Uganda and Rwanda, she traveled world as a child, daughter of a diplomat and educator who had worked with the World Health Organization. As a singer and songwriter, she's collaborated with artists around the globe, including Hugh Masakela, John Legend, Baaba Maal and Paul Simon. Last year, she was invited to perform at the United Nations by Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon.



RATH: Evidence of Somi's latest journey is heard on her new project.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You guys are in fashion or...

SOMI: Music.


SOMI: Music.

RATH: On the first track, the sounds of an exchange with a customs officer set the scene. Then a musical landscape unfolds for Somi's new album, "The Lagos Music Salon."


SOMI: (Singing) Ankara Sunday. Going to put a lace on, forget about things for a while. Ankara Sunday. Putting her best face on, smile until the sun goes down. Yesterday, she had her (unintelligible) wings on...

RATH: Somi spent 18 months in Nigeria, keeping a journal and collecting musical material. And she returned to her New York home to record it. Somi joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome.

SOMI: Thank you.

RATH: So you have roots in Africa, as we mentioned, but not in Nigeria, as far as I know.

SOMI: Well, I decided to go to Lagos because of a lot of the parallels that I saw between Lagos and New York. There's so much cultural energy. I mean, it's the largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa now. And there's just a lot going on in the creative industries there. They've always been sort of a cultural giant.


SOMI: (Singing) Hey, man, you cast your spell. Won't look, won't ask, won't tell. Won't deny this is magic...

RATH: The title of this album is "Lagos Music Salon." And salon has a certain old world, European connotation to it.

SOMI: Sure.

RATH: What's your idea of a salon?

SOMI: It was really important for me to have an opportunity to work through this material as I was writing it and share it with a Lagosian audience. And so researching the idea of a salon, where it started - apparently, it was created by the Italians in the 14th century, popularized by the French in the 15th century. And so it was about these women sort of hosting, you know, the greatest minds and artists and voices of their time in these intimate spaces, oftentimes their own chambers. And so it really felt like this opportunity to kind of welcome that same intimacy.


RATH: One of the things that gives this album a really unique texture is you work in recording of ambient sound and a dialogue. What inspired that?

SOMI: You know, when I got there, I really had no agenda. And so one of the things that I knew I would do was just try to document whatever I could and create some sort of archive in whatever way that I could that I might go back and reflect on. So I started recording just all sorts of random moments, all sorts of random conversations or street sounds. And basically, I started collecting a sound diary. I carried around this little pocket digital voice recorder, and I curated it down to be these little snippets so that - you know, just to give people a sense of the place and the people.


RATH: Now, when you're taking on Nigerian music, it must be impossible to step outside the shadow of Fela Kuti, who's Nigeria's most famous musical icon. And you take him on directly through maybe one of his most famous songs, "Lady." To me, that song, "Lady," has always been kind of ambiguous. I'm not sure if he's praising or if he's condemning the modern, liberated African woman.

SOMI: (Laughing) Right. I think that it's always - yeah, I would definitely agree with you, in terms of ambiguity with of that song. And, you know, the version that I chose to do - it's not directly a cover, right? But I wanted to actually just give Fela a nod.


SOMI: (Singing) Oh, African man, don't you know. With your fists, your love don't show. Take my hand. Let's leave this valley. Use your strength and love to guide me. I'm your lady. I'll be your queen. Try to harm me, you'll hear me scream. I go say, I go say, I be lady, oh.

RATH: So in his song "Lady," Fela Kuti talks to the African woman. And in your song, she's talking right back.

SOMI: Exactly. It's sort of a reclamation of power, you know, just to eliminate any ambiguity.


RATH: Your song is not ambiguous.

SOMI: No. (Laughing).


SOMI: (Singing) Oh, African woman, strong and free, remove yourself from misery.

RATH: And you worked with Angelique Kidjo, you know, another iconic African singer who's still very active. And I've got to think, given her social activism, she probably found "Lady Revisited" a perfect song for her.

SOMI: It was really generous of her to be a part of the project, in thinking about who might bring a different kind of perspective beyond the arrangement and a freshness to it. It was wonderful that Angelique was generous enough to step in and share her voice as a woman and a champion of African women's rights.


SOMI: (Singing) I go say, I be lady, oh.

RATH: Could you talk about the song "Four African Women"? What prompted it? And also, you have a byline somehow with the late, great Nina Simone.


NINA SIMONE: (Singing) My skin is black.

SOMI: You know, Nina Simone is a huge source of inspiration for me. And something about her sort of raw beauty and truth-telling and honesty - I wanted to acknowledge that. And so I decided to put my version of "Four Women" - her song is "For Women," so I wrote a song called "Four African Women."


SOMI: (Singing) My heart is pulled in two.

SOMI: You know, as you know, her original is about sort of the quintessential or stereotypical experiences of the black women in the U.S. And I wanted to share her perspectives on what the stories and burdens and strength and resilience of the African woman might be.


SOMI: (Singing) Strong enough to carry on after genocide and all my family gone.

RATH: Talk about the city of Lagos. There's this wonderful side to it, but there's darkness there.

SOMI: For me, it's not even necessarily about dealing with the darkness. It's about trying to be honest with everything that I was experiencing. I mean, it's not an easy city, and there are a number of things that need to be better. But at the same time, there's so much promise. I think, for me, I would love for people to come away from listening to this and feel as though, if nothing else, there's inspiration.

RATH: Somi's new album is "The Lagos Music Salon." Somi, real pleasure speaking with you and getting to know your music. Thank you.

SOMI: Thank you so much.


RATH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Rachel Martin is away on maternity leave. I'm Arun Rath. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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