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New African Jazz

Somi, “The Lagos Music Salon”(Okeh). Labeling this music is no easy task. Despite its frequently exotic rhythms, it’s more like jazz than anything else. Despite singer and songwriter Somi’s Ugandan and Rwandan descent, she was born in the United States while her father was a student here, moved at 3 to Zambia and back to Illinois, where she grew up in the late ’80s. Hugh Masakela has been one of her mentors and she calls what she does “New African Jazz,” which seems appropriate and nicely evocative of its difference from conventional jazz. Her voice is lovely and so is she, and in this disc for the increasingly wide-ranging and revived Okeh label she is paying tribute to what Teju Cole calls in the notes “the leading cosmopolis of the Black Atlantic. With a population now in excess of twenty-one million, it is the nerve center of all things Nigerian, the mad beating heart of West Africa, the largest city on the continent and a glimpse, both alarming and exciting, of the collective future of our urban planet.” Listening to Somi’s music after a pilgrimage there, we might all hope it’s so. The songs here are all by Somi, except for one which uses a song by Fela Kuti. Another, a collaboration with Common and Four African Women, is a striking adaptation by Somi of an uncompromised classic by Nina Simone. For all its uncompromised lyrics, it’s music in beauty’s thrall all the way through and full of vocal interpolations revealing great wit and relishing laughter, too. Somi’s songwriting is fine but it’s her voice that enchants at all volume levels and in all registers. ΩΩΩΩ (Jeff Simon)