The Lagos Music Salon (Okeh)


Released May 26, 2014

AllMusic Favorite Jazz Albums 2014




The TED Blog caught up with the jazz-soul vocalist and songwriter—who was was born in Illinois to Rwandan and Ugandan parents and traveled frequently to East Africa—to talk about taking risks, navigating creativity within a multicultural life, and the artistic promptings that led her to explore the city of Lagos.

Tell us about your new album, The Lagos Music Salon. Does it refer to a real salon?

It was inspired by a recent 18-month creative sabbatical I took in Lagos, Nigeria. I called it a “salon” for a number of reasons — including a regular performance series I began while collaborating with fellow artists I was meeting in Lagos. But it’s also about creating a space for reflective conversations I was having with myself and with the city itself.

The idea for the performance salons came out of what I thought was a lack of intimate cultural spaces in Lagos that allowed for real artist-to-audience engagement. Even though Nigeria has this huge culture and music and art scene, the performance spaces are limited — shockingly so. I found that the performance spaces were mostly either these tiny places where the performer served as background music, or these hyper-produced, overpriced spaces, most of which were hotel conference rooms. At the time, I couldn’t find anywhere that regularly allowed for and encouraged the fundamental conversation between artist and audience.

While creating this new music, I wanted to be able to have that kind of concert and conversation with the Nigerian audience. At the time, I was writing my experience of the city, and I wanted to get critical feedback from from Lagosian people to know whether I was appropriately representing the experiences of Lagos living. I wanted my work to be something that Lagosians could be proud of, too. So I began producing salons. The very first one was more of an atelier — a showcase of work in progress. A friend of mine owns an art gallery, the African Artists Foundation, in a neighborhood called Ikoyi. We set up 66 chairs, had some hors d’oeuvres, organized a reception, and I performed all of the new material with my newly formed Lagos band. We were surrounded by all this beautiful artwork. Afterwards, we had champagne and cupcakes.

What was the initial response?

The initial response was wonderful — many people in the audience told me they connected with the work and really appreciated it. That feedback was critical for me, as was the experience of hearing it myself in a live context—experiencing how the work lived in my own body. I decided to produce more salons. I invited local artists to participate, and it just grew into this thing that happened every few months. It was a wonderful space for me to work through the music before going into the studio to record it. It also was a wonderful way of engaging the local arts community and establishing relationships with fellow musicians who were there. It was also an incredible learning experience in terms of taking off my often overly-cerebral, New Yorker jazz head to experience and create music on a more visceral level. I got to work with African musicians who have a very different kind of creative process than the New York-trained or conservatory musician might.

Why Lagos, specifically, and not a city in Uganda or Rwanda, where your parents are from?

There are a number of reasons. One, I was always very curious about the cultural energy there. I had been before to visit and to perform, and I realized how many parallels there were between Lagos and New York, in terms of size, energy, pace. It’s actually bigger than New York — 20 million people — and it’s always been a cultural giant on the African continent in terms of music, literature, fashion and visual arts. They’ve got the third largest film industry in the world.

So I was curious: Why is there so much cultural production in Lagos? What is it about the place that makes it such a cultural force? I mean, it’s partly a numbers game, because one out of every four Africans is Nigerian, but there’s something really special about the place. It’s not just about this moment, when everybody — no matter what industry — is looking at Africa as this new, emerging market to invest in. It’s about generations of cultural export and leadership. In the ’70s, every major label was actually in Lagos. Everybody passed through there, whether you’re talking about a Miles Davis or a Miriam Makeba or Nina Simone or Hugh Masekela.

I also moved there because I was curious about how, as an African woman, being in an African city might affect my lyrical, musical narratives and impulses. I decided not to go to my home cities of Kigali or Kampala because I didn’t want my experience colored by familiarity. I also thought I might have felt pressured by cultural expectations and obligations. The discovery of Lagos afforded me the privilege, and maybe freedom, of being a foreigner, and with that came a number of opportunities.  Basically, I wanted to go somewhere that gave me enough Africanisms to help me feel at home, but enough “foreignness” to keep my perspective totally fresh.

There are also substantial financial resources that the Nigerian government has committed to investing in the cultural sector. That was the first time I’d seen that in an African context. The World Bank came out with a report some years ago about how, in the global recession, creative economies in the developing world were the only place that they saw remarkable growth. The Nigerian film industry alone created about 100,000 jobs in 2011.

Did you have a residency there to start with?

Initially, I was invited to teach a residency at a university about five hours north of Lagos. I used that as a soft landing. After the first month I decided to stay for 15 months. While completing the residency, I found partnerships that gave me the support system necessary to set up there for the additional months. But I had no agenda when I moved. I just wanted to get out of New York, after having been there for a decade. I’d just lost my father, and I wanted to heal my heart. I also just walked away from my label, my management, my agent — all at once. I felt either I’d outgrown them, or we still just hadn’t gotten to this understanding of the larger story I’m trying to tell.

Artistically, I had so much more I wanted to say. As an African woman living in the United States, I have to negotiate my identity as an African and a Westerner, whereas on the continent, I am in a more transnational cultural space. I was curious how my work would shift once I was no longer culling over my cultural heritage through a diasporic lens. It’s a very romantic lens because you’re always sort of celebrating or privileging a longed-for place. Now, when I listen to Fela Kuti in Lagos, for example, I understand and hear it completely differently. That understanding could only have come from here. I loved his music from the perspective of an East African in New York. But now that I’ve experienced where the music is from, I realize there’s so much more that I had not heard or identified in the music before. So I think what I’m most proud of with this record is that there’s a keen sense of place that’s so fundamentally inside of it. I hope when people hear it, they feel as though they’ve traveled with me.

It’s a pretty courageous thing to do, to just move to another country.

Six months into it, I kind of had a freak-out moment. Like, what have I done? Did I just throw my career in the toilet? I felt like I was just out there in the wind, writing, and not knowing what I was necessarily there to say or talk about. Then, suddenly, I found that this body of work was emerging. It was mostly through my journals, snippets of melodies in the sound diary I was creating with my pocket recorder, or poetry that I had written. I realized it was, again, not about a particular genre. I mean, if you listen to the record, it’s got jazz, soul, some hip-hop, both traditional and popular Nigerian music, and other stuff. I decided not to censor those impulses.

I think, for me, that was what was the most frustrating for me as an artist prior to going to Nigeria—that folks always want to put you in a box. I understand that to commodify our art at times, people need to put labels on it. But that was very frustrating for me, because I am not just a jazz musician, I’m not only an African voice. I have all these influences. How can I not—as a half-Ugandan, half-Rwandan who grew up between Illinois and Zambia and who is living between New York and Lagos?

Speaking of genre, is this album a huge departure for you? You’re known in the jazz community — and this album is being released on Sony’s jazz-based imprint.

I would say my career has been rooted in the jazz community, but jazz is not my musical pedigree per se. There are a lot of purists who’d say I’m not really jazz, because I’m not that singer who sings a long list of standards. I’m a songwriter, first and foremost. The fact that I ended up in the jazz room is sort of a running joke in my band, because I’m always like, “How did we get here?” I don’t remember even hearing jazz until I was in college for the first time. My parents didn’t really listen to it.

What did they listen to?

My mom is a huge lover of Western classical music. She loves opera. She is also a great keeper of Western Ugandan folk songs. She has a beautiful voice. She’s not a professional singer, but she’s a beautiful singer. And my father listened to a lot of what you might call world music roots sort of stuff. I studied the cello, and listened to a lot of classical music as a young person, most of my life. We lived in Champaign, Illinois, which is a small university town. The radio offerings at the time in the ’80s weren’t so diverse.

I think that most African-Americans who have a more “indigenous” cultural and social African-American experience have a different engagement with jazz because it’s more their own cultural legacy. That’s not really the case for African immigrant families. There are a lot of Africans who love jazz, but there also many who just aren’t exposed to it. It’s very rare to have grown up listening to jazz as an African child.

There’s African jazz, isn’t there?

There is, but it developed in very particular pockets on the continent — mainly South Africa and Ethiopia — and has very strongly rooted traditions. And it’s a very specific kind of sound. Interestingly, you’ll usually find very parallel or mirrored social and political movements between the African experience and the American experience in terms of civil rights. Especially South Africa: South African jazz developed in conjunction with its apartheid and civil rights movements, parallel to how it played out in the US. The reality, though, is that what we know as American jazz is directly linked to African music, so there really should be more of a conversation between here and there anyway.

How much did you notice that there was a disconnect between the musical heritage of your youth and that of your African-American peers?

It wasn’t that it was an issue. I think the reason I ended up ultimately being drawn to jazz was that it’s a genre that expects, if not demands, improvisation. And it also privileges the individual voice in an ensemble. Not to say that other genres don’t appreciate improv or don’t appreciate the individual members of a group, but the trademark solo improvisation in jazz — being willing to be a very clear individual voice in an ever-changing ensemble — always felt like an appropriate musical metaphor that reflects my own social malleability, and the improvisation necessary as a person whose life includes very layered social and cultural experiences. Maybe that’s why the jazz audience were the first to get what I’m doing. I find that when people don’t know how to define a type of music, we just call it “jazz,” right?

But I’ve also learned a great deal from the musicians I’ve surrounded myself with, and my band members, because I find that jazz musicians have the widest musical vocabulary. That’s probably because they’re always being asked to improvise, not just play what’s on the page, which was a huge departure for me as somebody who grew up mostly in the classical music idiom. It freed me in a lot of ways. It allowed me to be all of myself, to bring in the African influences, and make space for my Midwestern, maybe soul influences, and my classical roots, and not feel problematic. If anything, it made my music richer.

I began work on this album long before I was signed to Sony, and when I started I was prepared to put this record out entirely independently. I decided, “I’m just going to be all of myself. Whatever I feel like the music or my voice is asking for, or deserves, or wants to say, or how it wants to say it — that’s what I’m going to honor first. I’ll deal with how that fits into a commercial context when the work is done.” But I’m very happy that Sony is committed to helping me manifest that vision.

Any highlights on the album you’re excited about?

Sure. The record has two producers, from Lagos and New York, who complemented each other with kind of the jazz-head and the African pop sensibilities. Cobhams Asuquo, based in Lagos, is one of the most celebrated producers on the African continent right now. My New York-based producer Keith Witty is also a beautiful bass player and composer.

And I have a couple of really amazing special guests — Angélique Kidjo and Common, both of whom are Grammy-winning artists. I’m honored that they agreed to be a part of this, Angélique being like an older sister — originally from Benin — and Common being a wonderful MC. He’s on the song “When Rivers Cry,” which is about the environment, about the need for a committed green movement on the African continent. I wrote it when Wangari Maathai, the first African female Nobel Prize Laureate, passed away.

Angélique and I did a piece called “Lady Revisited,” a reinterpretation of Fela Kuti’s original “Lady,” but speaking out against domestic violence and legislation that’s not in favor of women in some parts of the African continent. Angélique has always been a real womanist and a champion of African female causes, so I wanted to have her voice on it.

Ambrose Akinmusire, a Nigerian-American trumpet player out of the West Coast, plays on “Brown Round Things,” a song about a loss of innocence. There’s just a whole cast of both American and African artists, both in Lagos and in New York.

What next?

I’m in the process of trying to create a salon tour, which I’m super excited about. Instead of doing typical shows in typical concert venues, I’m collaborating with a number of community art spaces to recreate the original Lagos-style salons. The first of these will happen in a few major US cities this September, but we’ll also collaborate with African arts communities in those cities. I hope to help people really experience what that first salon felt like, with the 66 chairs and the cupcakes, the truth-telling and the intimacy.

Overall, I hope this project helps people to think about African narratives in a more nuanced manner. I think people expected me to come back from Nigeria with a very particular sound. I want people to come away with an understanding that there are very singular, personal experiences and stories that need to be told. I’m hoping to play my part in championing some of those voices and stories.

Track Listing:

1. First Kiss: Eko Oni Baje (Cobhams Asuquo / Somi / Keith Witty) 01:25

2. Love Juju #1 (Cobhams Asuquo / Somi) 03:22

3. Lady Revisited (Fela Kuti / Michael Olatuja / Hervé Samb / Somi) 03:55

4. Ankara Sundays (Somi / Keith Witty) 05:18

5. Ginger Me Slowly (Ré Olunuga / Somi) 04:04

6. When Rivers Cry (Cobhams Asuquo / Common / Toru Dodo / Somi) 04:28

7. Brown Round Things (Toru Dodo / Ré Olunuga / Somi) 04:30

8. The Story of Monkey (Somi) 00:53

9. Akobi: First Born S(U)N (Cobhams Asuquo / Somi) 04:07

10. Two-Dollar Day (Cobhams Asuquo / Somi) 05:51

11. Still Your Girl (Toru Dodo / Somi) 04:47

12. Four.One.Nine (Somi / Keith Witty) 03:32

13. Love Nwantinti (Cobhams Asuquo / Toru Dodo / Somi / Nelly Uchendu) 02:11

14. Four African Women (Michael Olatuja / Nina Simone / Somi) 06:36

15. Hearts & Swag (Somi / Keith Witty) 01:17

16. Love Juju #2 (Cobhams Asuquo / Ré Olunuga / Somi) 04:21

17. Last Song (Uko Ini-Obong / Michael Olatuja / Somi) 04:21

18. Shine Your Eye (Cobhams Asuquo / (Somi / Keith Witty) 03:23


Somi: vocals

Toru Dodo: piano

Michael Olatuja: bass

Keith Witty: drum programming, double bass

Liberty Ellman: guitar

Otis Brown III: drums

Abraham Lanlate: talking drum

Cobhams Asuquo: percussion, drum programming, vocals

Alicia Olatuja: vocals

Angelique Kidjo: vocals (3)

Cochemea Gastelum: saxofone

Ayanda Clarke: percussion

Conrad Harris: violin

Pauline Kim Harris: violin

Caleb Burhans: viola

Peter Sachon: cello

Re Olunuga: vocals

Karibi Fubara: vocals

Michael Boyd: drum programming

Common: vocals (6)

Sheldon Thwaites: drums, percussion

Sula Kalski- Caines: vocals

Neema Lazzaroni: vocals

Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet (7)

Wura Samba: percussion

Priscilla Nzimiro: vocals

Christophe Panzani: flute

Olaitan Dada: vocals

Chima Eluwa-Henshaw: vocals

Uzo Enemanna: vocals

Recorded at Bass Hit Recording Studios, New York, NY; Bay 7 Studios, Los Angeles, CA; CAMP Studios, Lagos, Nigeria; Chiller Studios, New York, NY; Crooked Avenue Studios, New York, NY; Gani Fawehnmi Freedom Park, Lagos, Nigeria; MSR Studios, New York, NY; Natialo Productions Studio, Lagos, Nigeria; Obatala Studio, Brooklyn, NY.

Produced by Cobhams Asuquo, Keith Witty and Somi

Engineers: Bojan Dujic, Chris Soper, Danielle Warman, Dave Darlington, Derik Lee, Enoch Ojemuare, Ibuku Adugba, Jean Hébrail, Keith Witty, Michael L. Thomas, Olaitan Dada, Olusola Raji, Temitayo Yekini

Assistant Engineer: Gloria Kaba

Mixed by Dave Darlington

Mastered by Dave Kutch

Mixed by Dave Darlington

Photography by Glynis Carpenter


The Lagos Music Salon is jazz hybrid singer and songwriter Somi’s fourth studio full-length, and her debut for Sony’s OKeh imprint. Sometime after her Live at Jazz Standard set in 2011, she moved from New York to Lagos, Nigeria, searching for a mercurial “something” that would open new directions for her voice. Keeping a diary there, she wrote down her experiences and observations, and stories she gathered. Here, she weaves them wholesale into song form. Recorded in Nigeria and New York City, the album features her American band — guitarist Liberty Ellman, pianist/keyboardist Toru Dodo, Nigerian bassist Michael Olatuja, and drummer Otis Brown III — and numerous African musical guests. Though Somi’s music has always employed African influences, it’s never been to this extent. These songs seamlessly integrate jazz, classy soul, and sophisticated pop with African melodic and modal themes, styles and rhythms. Their narratives are often delivered in griot-like manner. Opener “First Kiss: Eko Oni Baje” is a field-recorded dialogue with a Nigerian customs officer at the airport. It’s one of several such bits here. “Love Juju #1” is a slippery, seductive number that enacts the “spell” of seduction through contemporary jazz, highlife, and King Sunny Ade’s signature juju music. Angélique Kidjo guests on “Lady Revisited,” which extrapolates Fela Kuti’s original; its Afro-beat rhythms and pulsing modal vamp — as well as a killer saxophone break — are refracted through modern creative jazz. “Brown Round Things” relates the story of a young prostitute. Somi’s delivery is heartbreaking in its restraint yet confronts the listener with the woman’s side of the story, daring the listener to remain unmoved. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire delivers an accompanying fill, underscoring the meaning in each line and spiraling it out. “Akobi: First Born S(U)N” is funky, horn-driven jazz with a stretched-out bassline and an electric piano functioning like a kalimba; its group chorus is sung in Yoruban — one of several dialects utilized here. “Four African Women” is gloriously militant in its sociopolitical statement (as are “Still Your Girl” and “Four.One.Nine”), but is delivered with bluesy phrasing — à la Abbey Lincoln — driven by Olatuja’s infectious bassline, Dodo’s spacy Rhodes, a serpentine sorey solo, tight syncopated snare breaks by Brown, and a layered female backing chorus. The sultry, soulful quiet storm ballad “Last Song,” is the set’s first single, but is far from predictable as the drum kit and bassline pick up the tempo and break the melody open, transmuting the song’s form without sacrificing its elegance. The Lagos Music Salon is not only Somi’s finest recording to date, but stands with Dee Dee Bridgewater’s classic Red Earth as an album that expertly explores the symbiotic relationship between American evolutionary music forms and their mirror image in modern African pop. It does so with a passionate conscience, a maestro’s discipline, and the wide-angle vision of a true artist.

Thom Jurek (AllMusic)