Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 8, No. 4, 2009

  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
  Contributing Editors
Bernard Dubé
David Solway
Robert Rotondo
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Emanuel Pordes
Diane Gordon
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Jazz Contributors

Tommy Emmanuel
John Stetch
Susie Arioli
Coral Egan
Diana Krall
Stacey Kent
Carol Welsman
Aldo Romano
Denzal Sinclaire
Madeleine Peyroux
Bireli Lagrene
Sonido Isleño
Provost & Lachapelle
Kevin Breit
Sophie Milman
Annie Poulain
Badi Assad
Donato & Bouchard
Ingrid Jensen
John Roney
Russell Malone
David Binney
Kurt Rosenwinkel
Mimi Fox
Voo Doo Scat
Coral Egan
Martin Taylor
Jordon Officer
Melody Gardot
Jean Vanasse
Yves Léveillé
Sylvain Provost

2009 Montreal Guitarissimo 2008 (Russell Malone, Stanley Jordan, Monte Montgomery, Sylvain Provost etc
2008 Jazz en Rafale Festival (Montreal) - Mar. 27th - April 5th -- Tél. 514-490-9613 ext-101 (featuring David Binney)
Montreal Jazz Festival 2006







Piano Keyboard


by Robert J. Lewis

Featured artist: SOMI

There invariably comes a time in any jazz festival (day #2) when I begin to tire of one brilliantly improvised solo after another, and long for music that stands on its own as composition, that resists the monotonal, lobotomizing seductions of ‘groove,’ that modulates, changes key, that makes me beholding to its architecture for long-term appreciation. These qualities were sumptuously supplied at Montreal’s 2009 International Jazz Festival by relatively unknown singer-songwriter Somi, of Rwandan and Ugandan heritage, now living in The Big Apple of a dream that has come somewhat true, if only in Europe.

Having spent time in both Zambia and Kenya, Somi’s source material is almost as extensive as her multi-octave voice that can produce a murmur one moment and a high pitched wail the next. What is most gratifying in her music is the natural ability to refract her myriad geographical influences such that they disappear in her person to emerge in compositions that reflect her complex relationship with place, politics and of course love and love lost. On stage, she is the full-figured embodiment of equipoise and distinction, the audience attracted as much to the person as her repertoire. I can’t imagine her not being invited back to Montreal for a series of concerts.

Her first album, Eternal Motive, was recorded in 2003, and while showing promise (“Keep Moving”), most of the tracks sounded somehow familiar in both their composition (a mix of soul and R & B) and delivery. But with the release of Red Soil in My Eyes (2007), Somi has come into her own with wonderfully wrought songwriting that completely wowed the capacity crowd at the Montreal Jazz Festival’s newest venue, The Astral. If most of the assembled weren’t quite sure what to expect, they emerged champagne bubbly over their new discovery: her CD sold out within minutes of the performance which certainly ranks as one of this year’s festival surprises. Not unlike Montreal’s Coral Egan, Somi’s music defies category, in part because the compositions are so closely identified with the person.

The increasingly short-shrifted art of songwriting depends on several key elements that all great (lasting) music features: a considerate dynamic range, multiple recombinations of voice and instrument, and most importantly, a music that effectively and purposefully (towards a conclusion) modulates so we don’t tire of it. As listeners, we all look for the hook, and then to be taken somewhere unexpected such that we yearn to return again and again – to The American Song Book, for example.

In respect to the above criteria, Somi, for her Montreal debut, left no doubt that after an arduous apprenticeship she has matured exponentially as a songwriter. Almost without exception, every composition featured astonishing invention, breathtaking ascents and descents, and shifts in texture, tone and mood that turned every song into an exploration.

In making a point of performing with and not in front of her band, Somi didn’t hesitate to draw from the deep wells of Toru Dodo on piano and Michael Olatuja on bass. If she's not strictly a jazz singer ( the only thing she is strictly is herself), much of her music is jazz inflected: more emphasis on cymbals than skins, and the forward thrusting piano solos gravitate to the dissonances supplied by jazz. But it is the preciously unpredictable that invigorates Somi’s repertoire. From out of nowhere, a thrashing world-beat will suddenly evoke the new Africa only to marvellously morph into a plaintive tribal cadence.

Despite the healing and catharsis that underpins her music, Somi would rather close her eyes and clench than let loose, even when the music invites an almost dervish exhibition of frenzy. And if her retina-rolling attire is anything but low keyed, her stage sensuality is implied and piquantly partnered with measured restraint in her physical gestures, the effect of which is to further egg on audiences nearly begging to go Vesuvius.

What sets Somi apart from other very good singers is her itinerant voice that’s comprised of an irresistible cocktail of voices. Unlike most singers who are most effective in the middle register, Somi is strongest, purest (à la Om Koultoum) in the upper where she does not do most of her singing. Like a trained opera singer, she’s one of the few contemporary vocalists who can shape her voice so that in the middle range it can conjure up the consolations of blue velvet on flesh, or from deep within produce a sad, hollow tenor that suggests desolation or malaise. And when called for, she can rise to the occasion of high-octave pain and supplication or revert to a mood altering falsetto. It only takes a song and dance to realize that there isn’t much she can’t do with a voice that is always in service of song, equal to the passions of a fully realized woman who is able to transmute the sum of her life experience into music.

Somi is the real deal, and with the emergence of a highly distinctive musical interval that is tantamount to personal signature, she has every reason to expect that Red Soil in My Eyes will not only create a critically appreciative fan base in North America, but will soon elicit deserved comparison to the work of Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson at the very top of their game.

Related articles:
Melody & Mind
Rap Music: Truth & Consequences

Photo © J. F. Leblanc



John Coltrane
Miles Davis
Thelonius Monk
Charlie Mingus
Oscar Peterson
Charlie Parker
Dizzy Gillespie
Wes Montgomery
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis