Somi’s Holy Room breaks the sounds of silence

Grammy nominee Somi’s big-band album Holy Room: Live at the Alte Oper with Frankfurt Radio Big Band places her remarkable songwriting skills on front street, infusing the songs themselves with more gravitas and grandeur.

Recorded in May, 2019 in Frankfurt, Somi confesses that she never thought of the show as a possible release until lockdown hit in 2020 and she began to be haunted by the thoughts of all those empty theatres and concert venues. 

“I actually had a totally different studio album I was planning on putting out,” she says on a call from the United States. “I will say that when we were in rehearsal two years ago, I was like: ‘Oh my God, I love how the band sounds. I wish that I could make this an album.’

“At the beginning of the pandemic and the shutdown, I had an emotional, energetic and visceral response to it. It’s because I was hearing the stage and I was hearing that energy and having been away from it, it reminded me of the thing that makes me feel most alive. I decided it would be an offering for myself and the audience, in the midst of the fact that all these theatres around the world have been sitting in silence. It was such a heartbreaking sound in my mind. The deafening silence.”

Now with seven albums to her name, Somi says her recent Grammy nomination for best jazz vocal album is more of an opportunity to be more visible as opposed to being “a destination”.

“It means that I can continue to contribute to the community that I represent in the stories that I am telling. It’s an affirmation to continue in a way and it says that this work resonates with someone, some way.” 

With its big-band orchestrations, Holy Room captures Somi’s unguarded moments of free flight, especially when viewed with the knowledge of how she tends to obsess over the studio process. 

“I was having this conversation with a long-time collaborator and one of my main producers and he was saying that he hopes it gives me access to more freedom,” she says. “What’s interesting with this album is that it is a most sincere version of what I do on stage. And as a performer and a vocalist that feels wonderful.”

Somi at the Highline Ballroom. (Image courtesy of artist)

Constructions of blackness

Somi speaks of hitting the stage with the band and feeling as though she was part of a choir (“Those wind instruments felt like a shroud of voices,” she says), fitting for a repertoire that “activates the nuances of global constructions of blackness”.

She says: “For me, having this layer where there is all this kind of depth, colour and dissonance; where there’s so much more instead of one horn sound … Metaphorically, the idea of being surrounded by a throng of voices and singing songs that are literally meant to represent a people is really quite a tender thought for me because that’s really how it sounds on stage.” 

At some point in the conversation, I had asked Somi whether the Grammy recognition for a live album lands differently, in the sense of possibly centring her performance more than the other skills she brings to the table. 

“A live album is all of those things. It’s a performance thing and it’s about the music itself and the songwriting, et cetera.”

And songs she has. Arranged and conducted by John Beasley, if nothing else, the restructuring of her material allows us to marinate in the narratives, animating the lived experiences she conjures. Somi soars, pauses and scats them into being. 

Over the phone, we linger over lyrics, starting with The Gentry, a song she wrote in honour of a decades-old drum circle in Harlem that came to a halt when the new “neighbours” threatened to call the cops “on the noise”.

“Would you like coffee or some tea? How about milk or some honey?” goes a refrain in the song. “I want it black. I want it back,” comes the response. 

“Metaphorically, the idea of being surrounded by a throng of voices and singing songs that are literally meant to represent a people is really quite a tender thought for me.” (Photo: Terrence Jennings)

“I always want to make the story feel accessible,” says Somi of the metaphor. “So for me, that line is about, [what is] usually the first sign of gentrification. There’s suddenly a cute cafe, a quick restaurant somebody has put together. I wanted to talk about something that is a simple thing but is a stark onset of that [gentrification] that everybody can relate to. Because it is a suggestion of some kind of leisure. In the hood it’s very rare to see spaces that are just dedicated to leisure or to something as seemingly as civil as a latte or a cappuccino …” 

“While I really just try to start from a point of view that is plain. I’m really interested in: what are the ordinary scenes around us that are actually so much more complicated? What does it mean to show up in a community, where you understand what that community has been — which you should — and then to rupture that culture, or whitewash it.”

On one level, Somi says her intention is to “disarm” as a way of hacking through the barrier that her physicality represents. 

“I’ve thought about the meaning of being a black, full-figured African woman showing up in these white spaces shouting these types of stories. If it’s sometimes uncomfortable for the listener, that’s okay. I had to do some work of getting past that a few years ago. 

“When I started sharing some of those songs in The Lagos Music Salon (released in 2014), I kept asking myself: ‘Is this too much?’ I have love songs and feel-good music and things like that but sometimes I’m telling the stories of things that I’ve witnessed but we’re framing it in music that might disarm the listener. I’m not trying to be deceptive but I have to be at peace with the story … the ones that are hard to talk about.” Alien, based on Sting’s Englishman in New York, is another highlight that is given new life in Holy Room, being initially recorded for the 2017 album Petite Afrique. “Alien is really about the African quarter in Harlem [Petite Afrique]. It’s been there for about forty years, mostly African, mostly working-class, mostly Francophone.

“There is a darker colour to the song because I wanted to speak about the fact that the experience of being an African immigrant is different to that of being a Brit. The way that people perceive you is very different. Home is never there [as an African immigrant]. You never fully feel naturalised, no matter how long you have been in the place. In Harlem there are people who have been there forty to fifty years and are still made to feel less than. They have American-born children, have paid their taxes but they live in this country where they are reminded that they are still the other. 

“There is this juxtaposition in the bridge to Sting’s song, where it is carefree and is in a major key, I just wanted to talk about the anguish.”

For an album that almost didn’t see the light of day, Holy Room can be considered a successful experiment in releasing something that was not backed by a tour. What was an intuitive reversal of logic can hopefully be a stepping stone to even greater heights in what is an already storied career.

Holy Room is released by Salon Africana. It was nominated for a Grammy in the best jazz vocal album category.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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