“A true multicultural woman, Somi was born in Illinois to immigrants from Rwanda and Uganda, then spent her early childhood in Zambia. A self-described “classical music nerd” as a child, she began studying the cello in primary school, an endeavor that continued well into her college years.
Encouraged by her mother’s love of song, Somi began singing herself, performing in church and eventually landing roles in her university’s musical theater productions. The African cultural legacy, always crucial to her sound, is as vital as ever in her current music, which Somi likes to call New African Soul.
But so too is the music she heard upon relocating to New York, with American jazz singers like Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan as essential to her artistic development as the legendary African female voices of Miriam Makeba, Cesaria Evora and Sade.
The percussive thrust at the heart of African music is also a fundamental component of her newest album, If the Rains Come First, brought to bear by an all-star African rhythm section of Ivorian percussionist Madou Koné, Senegalese guitarist Herve Samb, and Nigerian bassist Michael Olatuja. Somi recorded the album’s 11 songs in Paris in order to take advantage of the city’s sizable African music scene, then finished it in New York to avail herself of the world’s greatest jazz community.
Among the exemplary musicians who provide the coloring that fleshes out Somi’s songs are longtime collaborators Toru Dodo on Fender Rhodes and piano, and guitarists Liberty Ellman, David Gilmore and Michele Locatelli.
As her career has taken off, Somi’s talents have been called upon for collaborations and live performances with such greats as John Legend, Cassandra Wilson, Mos Def and Paul Simon. Most recently, internationally renowned Israeli singer-songwriter Idan Raichel featured her vocals on his latest album Within My Walls (Cumbancha), on the track “Maisha,” which Somi also co-wrote.
In addition to her own works, Somi also aims to bring other important cultural gems to light, and has founded a non-profit arts organization, New Africa Live, committed to producing multidisciplinary arts events that celebrate contemporary African artists.
As active as she is, Somi always takes the time necessary to finesse each song she crafts. If the Rains Come First reveals the careful attention she pays to getting it right. “I never force a song out,” she says. “Usually having quiet space for introspection and meditation inspires me deeply. I’ve also begun doing more co-writing with the musicians in my band for stronger harmonic arrangements and the opportunity to share the music with them in a more personal way.”
‘The songs on this album reflect where I am emotionally and spiritually today,’ Somi continues. ‘At the end of the day, I still know who I am and where home is before, during, and after the rain-it’s in the music.’”