Somi: Zenzile – The Reimagination Of Miriam Makeba

Tribute album convincingly makes the case that Miriam Makeba deserves a place in the jazz canon – and that Somi may too, one day

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The well-deserved success of Samara Joy’s major-label debut last year overshadowed this far more ambitious album by another New York vocalist, born to East African parents. Hopefully this lavish vinyl release brings more recognition for this sprawling, star-studded double album, based on a stage musical.

Somi’s fresh takes on 16 songs written or performed by Makeba are often jazzier and edgier than the originals. Take for instance the opening track, Umhome, with Lakecia Benjamin’s searching sax solo and Somi’s vocals that range from whoops to ululation and guttural glossolalia – a voice that could shatter a wineglass.

From there she moves on to a nearly unrecognisable House Of The Rising Sun, perhaps closer to the version by Nina Simone, to whom Somi has been compared. Other weightier moments include A Piece Of Ground, where her voice reaches effortlessly deep into the cellar for foreboding lyrics about rapacious colonisers.

On Kwedini, Somi soars regally over the male backing vocals like a queen commanding her palanquin bearers. That’s close to the arrangement of Makeba’s 1962 original, produced by her then-husband Hugh Masekela – who later mentored Somi and played on her 2009 debut.

The upbeat Olili blazes with a bluesy solo by Senegalese guitarist Hervé Samb, backed by former Miles Davis/Weather Report percussionist Mino Cinélu. Somi gets breathy on Love Tastes Like Strawberries, a charming poppy duet with Gregory Porter. Nonqonqo, featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo, suggests that the distinctive click consonants of the Xhosa language are under-used as jazz percussion.

Somi could have aimed for a radio-friendly single with a straight cover of Makeba’s biggest hit, Pata Pata. Instead it is stark and slow, with clips of Makeba speaking over a bed of strings. “Sometimes it’s better to laugh to keep from crying,” she says, ending with a sharp inhale that could be a laugh or a sob.

On the lovely ballad Malaika, Somi briefly shows the full power of her high-octane voice but doesn’t show off or over-emote, while the last two tracks are nearly a capella, bringing this epic to a close with heartbreakingly beautiful piano by Nduduzo Makhathini.

Discography
Umhome; House Of The Rising Sun; Milele; Hapo Zamani; Love Tastes Like Strawberries; Khuluma; Pata Pata; A Piece Of Ground; Kwedini; Lakutshon’ilanga; Olili; Mbombela; Jike’lemaweni; Nonqonqo; Malaika; Ring Bell, Ring Bell (73.00)
Somi, Angélique Kidjo, Gregory Porter, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Msaki, Seun Kuti, Thandiswa Mazwai, Bongi Duma, Nhlanhla Ngobeni, Phindi Wilson, Vuyo Sotashe (v); Lakecia Benjamin (as); Myron Walden (ts); Jeremy Pelt (t); Mino Cinélu (pc); Michael Olatuja (b); Cobhams Asuquo (v, kyb); Nate Smith (d); Keith Whitty (b, pc); Hervé Samb (g); Nduduzo Makhathini, Toru Dodo (p); Marika Hughes (clo); Ina Paris (vla); Juliette Jones, Mazz Swift (vn). New York, Durban, Johannesburg, Paris, 2020-2022.
Salon Africana/Membran 270588