Wednesday, December 16, 2009

If the Rains Come

If the Rains Come First
By Somi

In the 1960’s and 1970’s South African exiles trumpeter Hugh Masekela and vocalist Miriam Makeba were cause célèbres as a result of their political struggles, but they became international superstars for their music—an infectious and compelling variant of African pop and folk music influenced by American jazz and soul. Though she would probably demur at the comparison, the emerging vocalist Somi can be seen as a direct heir to Makeba, combining stylistic elements nu-jazz and nu-soul with African musical forms and themes on her latest CD, If the Rains Come First, which fittingly also features a guest appearance by Masekela, Makeba’s frequent musical partner.

Somi’s voice has a warm breathiness well suited to the smoldering soul of “Hot Blue,” which opens Rains. It is indeed a hot track, given an insinuating groove by electric bassist (and CD co-producer) Michael Olatuja and drummer Nathaniel Townsley. However, it is on the following “Prayer to the Saint of the Brokenhearted” the African rhythms really emerge through Julian Machet’s dynamic percussion and Senegalese guitarist Herve Samb’s catchy upbeat solo.

Indeed, Masekela sounds in good form lending his burnished horn to “Enganjyani,” taking a brief solo and adding some tasty accents here and there, recalling the great funky work on his Chisa recordings. Another notable guest, American guitarist Liberty Ellman, also brings a distinctive acoustic jazz sensibility to the sweetly melodic “Changing Inspiration.”

There is a Cassandra Wilson-like character to Somi’s songwriting, reflected in lyrics expressing earthly longing as well as a higher spirituality. In particularly, she delivers the evocative lyrics of “Wallflower Blues” with audible feeling, and if you will, soul. However, probably the most dramatic and personal track on Rains is the beautifully simple “Be Careful, Be Kind,” written to convey her family’s sense of loss following the accidental death of a young cousin.

Likewise, “Jewel of His Soul” is another poignant example of Somi’s life informing her music. Inspired by a chance encounter with a homeless Senegalese man in Paris, it is a delicate ode to humanity, featuring the sympathetic support of jazz pianist-keyboard player Toru Dodo, who takes a brief but pleasing solo turn on the standout track.

American born to Rwandan and Ugandan parents, Somi has lived in Zambian and is no stranger to the European music scene. Her musical world citizenship comes through clearly on Rains, which should well satisfy a broad cross-section of contemporary jazz, nu-soul, and world music listeners.

(Photo credit: Matthew Furman)