Ten minutes before Somi’s concert Thursday night at the Weinberg, I wanted to cuss all of Frederick out. There was hardly anyone there. As I sat in my seat, right behind a grey-haired gentleman who didn’t know what airplane mode was, I was shocked that Frederick wouldn’t come out to listen to the talented chanteuse who eloquently sings of the African diaspora.
Somi melds disparate worlds together in her jazz-infused music. Her latest album, “Petite Afrique,” chronicles the African immigrant journey of living in America. The album was inspired by the sights and sounds of the West African community in her Harlem neighborhood. “The Lagos Music Salon,” Somi’s 2014 album, is like a travel journal of her pivotal time in Lagos, Nigeria. And “If The Rains Come First” created a template of Somi’s boundary-less music. This 2009 album included a collaboration with influential South African musician Hugh Masekela.
But Thursday night, it seemed just over 50 people (100 at best) in the Frederick area witnessed Somi’s talent. The empty seats were like the elephant in the room during Somi’s concert. Every time she gazed towards the back of the Weinberg, I cringed hoping she didn’t see the paltry audience before her.
Somi never mentioned the crowd’s size, but she did thank the audience for being present. As soon as she said that, a small group yelled, “Thank you” back to her. That was what Somi’s concert was like. An intimate performance in front of an audience much smaller than the artist’s musicality.
Somi entered the Weinberg stage wearing a yellow striped dress with a yellow beaded collar. She took her time singing, as if she was trying to set a mood. Her voice varied from being soft and mellow, to soaring, to quick, rhythmic notes, like there was a lightning bolt in her body. Somi was backed by a small but nimble ensemble of a bassist moving from upright to electric, a guitarist, drummer, and a pianist who moved from an acoustic grand piano to what seemed to be a Wurlitzer keyboard.
“Am I black enough for you?,” Somi sang from her “Petite Afrique” song, “Black Enough.” Somi plunged herself in the highlife-jazz music. She danced, with her hands and arms slowly cascading. She even did some rhythmic breathing to punctuate the song’s rhythm. She ended “Black Enough” with her arms raised. She uttered a phrase that appeared in many Black Lives Matter protests: “Don’t shoot me!”
With her warm voice that seems to shimmer in the upper register, Somi is able to sing bitter truths without coming across as harsh.
“Ankara Sundays,” a song about a woman who has one day of the week to live fully with joy, has an underlying current of both sorrow and resilience. Somi delicately performed this song while a funky bass riff played behind her. The band made the song feel like a living organism in knowing how to swell the instrumentation into a triumphant chorus.
The next song Somi performed, “Two Dollar Day,” was inspired by her time in Lagos during the Occupy Nigeria movement in 2012. Protests formed when gas prices skyrocketed due to the government’s removal of fuel subsidies. Somi explained this to the audience before singing of a woman who is stranded, unable to pay for fuel.
“Can’t get home,” Somi sang, in a way that made the notes linger. She has a way of creating visual images that makes you see the people on the margins of privileged society.
“Brown Round Things,” a song Somi performed about prostitutes, is another example. Somi was in her element during this somber song, as she shaped and elongated her notes in a fluid way where the words flowed together.
One of the last songs Somi performed was “Ginger Me Slowly,” a personal favorite of mine, that was stripped down to just a guitar backing with snaps from her band members.
The final song Somi performed was “Last Song,” which is likely a closing staple of her setlist. “Last Song” is both pensive and exuberant, and it felt even more important since she was singing in front of a mostly empty Weinberg. To commit your best when hardly anyone notices you is a sign Somi is giving her all like each concert is her last.