To another place: Somi

Boston Globe, November 15, 2009

Somi’s new album, “If the Rains Come First,” glistens with the sheen of an almost impossibly perfect cosmopolitanism, but that shouldn’t be held against her.

It could hardly be otherwise. Recorded in Paris and New York, with a group that includes a Senegalese guitarist, Herve Samb, a Japanese pianist, Toru Dodo, and a British-Nigerian bassist, Michael Olatuja, this subtle, rhythmically taut gem of an album documents global nomads sharing personal as well as musical experiences.

Centering the frame is Somi, daughter of Rwandese and Ugandan parents, raised in a Midwest college town, and now based in New York, who writes lyrics full of poetic intimacy in English laced with Swahili, Kinyarwanda, and Rutoro. Her quiet feel and indeterminate allure have prompted comparisons to Cassandra Wilson and Sade.

A better indicator of Somi’s reference points may be the appearance, on the beautiful track “Enganjyani,” of the great South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela – one who knows a bit about melding jazz and African material to great emotional effect.

For Somi, whose full name is L. Kabasomi Kakoma and who plays at Scullers on Wednesday, this album represents the latest stage on a journey of exploration that she traces all the way to her childhood, and beyond the scope of music alone.

“I was always preoccupied with the cultural side of myself,” she says on the phone from her parents’ home in Champaign, Ill., where she spent her childhood. “I felt as though I wasn’t really from here. In high school I felt cheated.”

As a teenager, she joined a Ugandan-American association and would attend conventions some weekends, returning unable to share the experience with her mostly white, Midwestern friends. “When you’re 15 or 16, you’re not even sure how to begin that conversation,” she says.

Her parents, medical professionals, encouraged music and arts but not necessarily as a career. “It was more about me being well-rounded,” she says. At the University of Illinois she focused on African studies and cultural anthropology – with the aim, she says, of understanding her ancestry.

But it took returning to East Africa for a year after college for Somi to give herself permission to follow her muse. She spent time in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, and worked for part of the period with children with HIV. The trip brought her American and African identities finally into balance.

“That’s when I really was: I’m both. It’s OK,” she says. “And now that you know where you are from you can see where you want to go. And I chose to come to New York, and music became the first thing for me.”

In a decade in New York, Somi has found a space at the crossroads of the jazz, hip-hop, and world-music scenes, and made two albums before the current one. Self-released, they garnered some underground buzz, but she says she was only starting to find her voice.

“I was actually shying away from the African and world side of things,” she says of her first project, “Eternal Motive.” “I was getting advice that people just wouldn’t get it. I didn’t take many risks vocally. I was also very young in the journey.”

Her second disc, “Red Soil in My Eyes,” was less self-censored. “I started singing in other languages,” she says. “I began to tell a full story. That’s when I totally backed away from using electronic instruments. I wanted a natural, organic aesthetic to be at the forefront. It freed me.”

The new record is a quantum leap forward, backed by the resources of jazz label ObliqSound and crafted with a full production team. “We wanted her sound to be on another level,” says bassist Olatuja, the album’s co-producer. “We tried to capture something of where she is now.”

Lately Somi has been a cultural entrepreneur as well. She has organized New York showcases for musicians like Nigerian singer Asa, South African rockers BLK JKS, and Somali rapper K’Naan, who go beyond what she calls the “homogenized notions” of African music.

Olatuja says Somi’s efforts make her a role model to other bicultural artists. “She has been so brave to do her own music,” he says. “I definitely look up to her.”

Somi expects she will move back to Africa more permanently. She says it’s more realistic than ever to make a living as an artist in the region, and she also feels the call of development needs in Rwanda, where her father’s roots are, and the villages in Uganda where both he and her mother grew up.

Still, Somi says she will always keep a foot in New York. “The ideal is to be in East Africa,” she says. “But I have multiple homes.”