On Somi’s First Big-Band Recording, The Singer Refuses To ‘Stagnate In Tradition’

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A portion of the proceeds from Somi’s latest album, Holy Room: Live At Alte Oper With Frankfurt Radio Big Band, go to benefit the Black Art Futures Fund.

(Photo: Anna Longworth)

New York-based vocalist Somi thought that her May 2019 date with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band in Germany was just a gig—an exciting one.

It was her first performance ever with a big band, and world-renown pianist John Beasley had prepared the arrangements for two sets of her original material. The thought crossed her mind that the gig would make for a nice live recording—German public radio was taping the performance for national broadcast—but she was booked up for the next two years. Before she’d have time to undertake such a release the show would be old news, she thought.

“Then the pandemic hit,” Somi recalled in a July Zoom call about Holy Room: Live At Alte Oper With Frankfurt Radio Big Band, the first release on her new label, Salon Africana. “I thought it would be wonderful [to release the recording], and I felt very fortunate to have it. I was quite overcome when I listened to it, because I miss performing so much. I could feel the energy, the centering that happens on stage. The magic.”

For the Frankfurt performance, Somi had fashioned two sets of material from several of her albums, each one an ever-more-personal expression of her multifaceted artistry. From her official 2007 debut, Red Soil In My Eyes, for instance, she took “Ingele,” a lilting, Swahili-language original that shows off the striking expressiveness of her impressive vocal range. As the band explodes in rhythmic abandon, she moves naturally from languid, legato phrases into whelps, calls and shouts—tricky vocal interjections that speak as much of Somi’s sophisticated musical heritage as of magic.

“That particular album was about owning the African side of myself in the music,” she said. “It allowed me to play with all of that color in a fuller way. As somebody who grew up in several different places, with many influences, [my music] is never going to stagnate in tradition. This was my first attempt to create a bridge between my world and my point of view.”

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On Sale Now
June 2021
Vijay Iyer
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