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Leaning into Freedom: Somi explores the legacy of Miriam Makeba on stage and on record


I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk with Somi Kakoma— vocalist, composer, and writer—known professionally as Somi. I have admired her music, persona and style on the journey that led her to the world famous Carnegie Hall last fall where she debuted an all-star tribute to “Mama Africa” Miriam Makeba, the late civil rights activist and South African vocalist and a role model for Somi. Last year she released Zenzile: The Reimagination Of Miriam Makeba . Somi is currently on a world tour and the recent recipient of the recent 2023 Doris Duke Artist Award. She is currently a Graduate Prize Fellow working on her PhD at Harvard University’s Department of Music and currently on a world tour. But in her heart of hearts, she is an East African Midwestern girl who loves family, poetry and freedom.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Lezlie Harrison:  Let us give a little background about you. You were born in Illinois to parents who immigrated from Rwanda and Uganda, so your musical signature channels jazz, soul and the music of your roots. As an East African Midwestern girl, what or who were your musical influences growing up?

Somi: I'd say regarding my first influence, I always have to shout out my mother who is not a professional singer, but she is a beautiful keeper of song. She taught me so much about Western Ugandan folk music. And she just loved popular music and listened to everything from opera to Elvis. My father also loved roots music, if you will, like Bob Marley and all kinds of other traditional music. So they were probably my earliest influences.

I started studying the cello when I was eight. I was kind of a classical music nerd as a child. But I would also say Miriam Makeba was an influence because she's this ubiquitous voice that one hears, especially my generation of growing up with parents who knew she was the pop star of their generation. I don't really remember the first time I heard Makeba’s voice, but she's like an old friend, an old family member, an auntie. In many ways, I would say I took that influence for granted. Perhaps we all do when we grew up around particular music, until much later when I realized the sort of space making effort that she did as the first African artist to show up on the global cultural stage. And how she's had this ability to meld all kinds of genres, by staying true to herself as an African woman, but still being able to bring in popular music forms and jazz and so many other things.

I would also say Hugh Masekela is a huge influence. He’s my greatest mentor. I would also say Sade Adu, who in many ways was the first sort of transnational African girl I heard. I just loved her songwriting and her voice and her ability to evoke place and sensibility with one note and deep visceral emotions as well. Like I'm thinking about Love Deluxe. I'm thinking about “Love is Stronger Than Pride.” And Tracy Chapman. A wide range. So many.

What about traditional jazz vocalists like Sarah?

I would say Sarah Vaughan. The reason why I refer to those other influences before I referred to any jazz vocalists is because I didn't really grow up around jazz. I grew up around a lot of musical theater. I remember hearing Ella Fitzgerald's “Moonlight in Vermont” for the first time. I was in my car during my sophomore year in college and I had to pull over because I was like, “What is that?”

It stopped you in your tracks.

Yes, it stopped me in my tracks, literally. I think that just comes from growing up in an African household. As much as my family listened to all kinds of music, my parents didn't really listen to a lot of jazz. So I was like, “What is that?” And then understanding the relationship between the Great American Songbook and musical theater that I grew up loving and watching and really appreciating. The songs, the performances, the voices. And always feeling like I had this old voice, that I didn't really fit in to what might be considered popular ways of singing, or at least the singing I was drawn to. I liked the old voices in earlier eras. I would say I was in my twenties when I really started taking my voice more seriously, when I decided to take the path of a singer. In the journey before that, I was planning on being a medical anthropologist.

What a flip.

What a flip. But also not. A healing culture. I think it's connected. When I began to really do that deep dive into Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan. Those are probably my favorite vocalists of all time. And Miriam Makeba. That's also when I began to hear her relationship to jazz and think about how that has situated herself in that kind of conversation around global jazz idioms. And then also the contemporaries, like Dianne Reeves. I adore Dianne. I'm grateful to call her a friend and mentor. And Dee Dee Bridgewater. All of these people have had a profound impact on my life, personally and professionally, and influenced me in all kinds of ways, mostly to lean into freedom. You consider with all of these voices, it's about a certain type of freedom and an unapologetic presentation of the cultural self, as unapologetically black women. That inspires me greatly and continues to. I remember a conversation I had with Dianne Reeves about what does it mean to be a singer and what does it mean to have a voice? And just being okay that I don't really neatly fit into jazz.

But that's the beautiful thing.

Thank you for that. It’s about trusting your voice and trusting what your point of view is. And hopefully people connect with that.

I am connecting with your album, Zenzile: The Reimaging of Miriam Makeba. I love it. All those classic Miriam Makeba songs like “Pata, Pata.” You also do “House of the Rising Sun” and a duet with Gregory Porter. You have other guests on the album like Angelique Kidjo and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. What was the inspiration behind the whole dedication and reimagination of Miriam Makeba’s work?

When she passed away, I was just about to do a show at DROM on the Lower East Side in 2008. I got a phone call from Brian Bacchus. Brian always shows up at sort of these serendipitous moments in my life. He'll call me and say something and it will totally change the trajectory of my life. It's very interesting. So Brian calls me and says, “Hey Somi, I know you have a show tonight, but I thought you might want to know that Mama Miriam has died.” I remember having to walk out and tell the room about her passing. I remember the air kind of left the room and everyone was just a bit stunned.

I don't really remember the rest of the night, but I know that when I got home, I just kept thinking, “Well, who's going to honor her? What is the thing? Where is the gathering to honor her?” I emailed a number of presenters asking if I could produce a memorial concert of some sort and gather people. Of course, it's last minute and everybody books their season so far in advance. But Le Poisson Rouge had just opened and Brice Rosenbloom was the new booking person there. He wrote me back and said, “Hey, sure you can do it here.” And in six days, I was able to invite a range of people, whoever was in town, but those people included Randy Weston and Paul Simon. Randy came and spoke about what it was like to tour with her and Dizzy Gillespie, and he performed. Paul Simon came and did a short set and talked about what it was like to perform with her during the Graceland tour and bring her back into public consciousness because in the United States, basically after she married Stokely Carmichael, she was exiled or blacklisted for like 20 years.

Harry Belafonte came and eulogized her and spoke about what it was like to be a part of that introduction of her voice to the larger public. A range of African artists came. It was just an extraordinary night. Amiri Baraka was in the room. He was at her very first show in the United States at the Village Vanguard in December 1959. People kept saying, “How did you get all these people in the room?” I remember Art D’Lugoff, who is the original owner of the Village Gate and still owns that property of Le Poisson Rouge, came and spoke about what it was like to have her and Nina Simone, who was her best friend and sister, perform there as a double bill at the Village Gate with Bill Cosby. Her bass player, the late Bill Salter, came with a photograph of her performing live on the Village Gate stage and handed me a DVD of her performing.

It was extraordinary. And then there was an array of younger artists, including K’Naan, Les Nubians and myself. It was just wonderful to have this sort of intergenerational honoring of her. It was interesting because nobody covered it. Everybody was like, “Somi, how did you get these people here?” And I said, “You know what? This isn't even about my relationships. This is about a large number of people wanting to honor this woman and this voice.” I still think about it and get chills. I think about it as one of the most important things I've done in my own career, at that point not knowing that I would many years later go on this journey of honoring her through an album, a play, all these other ways. But I always think of that moment as the beginning of a series of conversations about her legacy.

How am I the one calling all of these people into this space? And I just thought, the fact that it's me means that there's a grave and deafening silence that shrouds her legacy. It doesn't make sense that my memorial became the only one that happened in New York. It didn't make sense that my memorial was the one that Belafonte came to. Perhaps one could say it does make sense, because of that lineage and connection. But at the same time, I didn't have those relationships at that time. It sort of stayed with me. What is it to not remember? What is it to speak her name regularly and call her memory back into space? As she deserved.

Somi performing in her play Dreaming Zenzile at Carnegie Hall
Stephanie Berger Photography, Inc.
Somi performing in her play Dreaming Zenzile at Carnegie Hall

What a wonderful story. Thank you so much for doing that wonderful tribute to Mother Africa. In April you had an off Broadway run in New York City with your original play Dreaming Zenzile. And in October you won Best Jazz Vocal Performance for the Zenzile album. You are on a roll here. Tell me about the play and where it is now.

We toured the play nationally to four different regional theaters across the country from 2021 to 2022. It was originally going to open in March 2020, but of course that didn't happen when the pandemic hit. Thankfully we were able to come back. It was a project I had been developing, including the pandemic years, for seven years. The idea of the piece is that it takes place on the last night of her life. Perhaps some people might know that she finished a concert in Italy, walked into the wings, had a heart attack and died. Which I think is a beautiful death, because it suggests that she must have felt some kind of way... That speaks to her generosity, the fact that she's like, “I'm going to actually still be with the people who have been with me, give to the audience and then step away.” It goes through what takes place on that night. It's about the spirits, the ancestors coming to her and talking to her about why that night was the night that she needed to go. And that she could put down the fight and that the voice actually lives on.

It's been wonderful because I've stretched as a writer, I've stretched as a performer, and as a vocalist to really try to embody her voice and her physicality. In the play, I'm actually playing the role of Miriam. It was a really wonderful and rich challenge. It was my first professional acting run. We finished the run a few months back. In the future, we’re planning for some international productions. My goal is to take it home to South Africa and some other places abroad. Then hopefully we'll bring it back to New York for the shiny kind of a bigger run. We'll see.

I look forward to seeing it and I'm so happy that you stopped by today. You have been quite busy. You're in the middle of a world tour. You are busy working on your doctorate at Harvard University’s Department of Music. You are also a recipient of the Doris Duke Artist Award. Tell me a little bit about that and what that means to you and your career right now.

The Doris Duke Artist Award is something I've always marveled at a distance. Also, I've known past recipients and so it's been wonderful to see colleagues and artists I admire, but don't know personally, celebrated in that way. I am deeply honored and deeply humbled to know that it’s my peers who make the decision or who are a part of that process. In many ways, it gives me courage. I think I'm still processing what it means, but I am so grateful. I think more than anything, it just means more agency to do all kinds of other work and hopefully strike a balance between life and art.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lezlie Harrison is her own personal renaissance. Her constant state of evolution and growth brings with it, gifts for those those paying attention.