For her previous effort, 2014's superb Lagos Music Salon, New York-based singer/songwriter Somi moved to Lagos, Nigeria in order to absorb the city's vibrant music and culture and utilize them as a catalyst for her own cross-pollinated jazz and R&B. On 2017's Petite Afrique, she turns her attention back across the Atlantic to New York's Harlem, drawing inspiration from that city's deep cultural roots to celebrate America's immigrant experience. Although born in Illinois, Somi is the daughter of Rwandan and Ugandan immigrants, and even spent several years living in Zambia and Kenya as a child. Consequently, she brings a unique cultural perspective to her music, a sound informed by jazz, R&B, and African and Latin traditions. Here, Petite Afrique (or "Little Africa") refers to a stretch of Harlem along West 116th Street, famed for its many shops and restaurants historically run by French-speaking Muslim West African immigrants. Somi even includes snippets of recorded conversations she had with Harlem locals and cab drivers to help flesh out her story-based song cycle. Produced by Lagos Music Salon's Keith Witty, Petite Afrique showcases an adept ensemble including guitarist Liberty Ellman, pianist Toru Dodo, bassist Michael Olatuja, and drummer Nate Smith. Also collaborating with Somi is trumpeter and associate producer Etienne Charles (himself an immigrant who grew up in Trinidad), who co-wrote some of the songs and supplies string and horn arrangements featuring fellow jazz musicians tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw.
The result is a set of songs that deftly straddle the lines between evocative R&B, atmospheric world music, and organically robust jazz. It's a sophisticated vibe, full of pathos, awareness, and poetry, both in the lyrics and in the melodies. It brings to mind the work of icons like Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba, and aligns Somi with such highly regarded contemporaries as Cassandra Wilson and Esperanza Spalding. After a brief opener of found sounds and spoken words that set the Harlem milieu, Somi kicks things off with "Alien," a bold, wry reworking of Sting's "Englishman in New York," featuring the revised chorus of "I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien, I'm an African in New York." Similar themes of racial and cultural identity crop up throughout Petite Afrique, as on the moody, Afro-pop-inflected "Black Enough" and the languid, classical guitar-tinged "Like Dakar." Elsewhere, Somi ruminates on the gentrification of Harlem on the thrilling, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus-influenced "The Gentry." She also delivers several poignantly rendered ballads, including the string-accented "They're Like Ghosts," in which she equates the romanticized feelings one might have for an old lover with the displacement of moving to a new country and longing for a past that might never have really existed, at least not exactly as you might remember it. She sings "They're like ghosts, these old lovers/Glowing in my dreams, twilight/Singing with a sweet familiar/But out of reach and out of sight." Undeniably, Somi has crafted a deeply emotive, socially minded album rife with layers of dense jazz harmonies and intoxicating soul grooves. However, what truly grabs your attention on Petite Afrique is her intuitive ability to capture the spirit of the immigrant heart, that dichotomously sorrowful and joyous sweet familiar between the old world and the new.