The great thing about coffee — or, in my case, a nice cup of tea — is the first sip and, just for a moment, the accompanying sense of well-being. Its a snugness, a familiarity imparted by ingredients from places of which you likely have no knowledge. And so it is with If the Rains Come First, the new album from an artist called Somi.
Somi sings in English, as well as three African languages. She has lived mostly in Illinois and New York but grew up in Africa.
It's an apt metaphor, because although she has lived most of her life in Illinois and New York, Somi spent her early childhood with her Ugandan and Rwandan parents in Africa. It's this merger of cultures and experiences that shapes her awareness and gives a distinct flavor to her music.
Somi's style may well span territory mapped out by Sade, Sarah Vaughan and even perhaps Steely Dan, but there's much more to it than that. For one thing, Somi sings not only in English but also three African languages. And, at the core of her music, there's a top-notch African rhythm section.
In "Enganjyani" — which, according to Somi, means "the memory of whispered prayer and being haunted by a past lover" — she is also joined by the legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela.
Most tellingly, though, these prodigious musical chops are employed in the service of some savvy songwriting.
Her lyrics are intimate and personal, turning on the everyday tribulations of life — things to which we can all relate. This seeming vulnerability is her strength, and her singing exudes both with confidence. This is life closely observed, and the delight is in the details. She's not afraid to drop the music out to practically nothing to focus on them.
If the Rains Come First unites the familiar with the exotic, and reveals the universal qualities that can be found in individual experience. These intimate ruminations need no larger-than-life sonic padding — they're a potent brew from the first sip to the last drop.