It’s a frigid late-winter afternoon in Harlem, and even for a quick walk around her neighborhood, Somi, the cosmopolitan jazz singer and songwriter, realizes she needs a hat. Fortunately, the vendors at the Malcolm Shabazz African Market on West 116th Street are open for business. Somi stops at a stall with a variety of hats in Malian mud cloth.
The vendor emerges from her cramped work area and greets Somi, automatically, in French. Gamely, the singer replies in kind. She’s not from West Africa — her family roots are across the continent, in Uganda and Rwanda, and she grew up in Illinois. But this hive of merchants, mostly from Senegal and Mali, is nonetheless in her comfort zone.
“I love this place,” Somi says as she selects a black-and-tan hat. “You can get dresses made by fantastic Senegalese tailors, you can get shea butter. I come here for last-minute performance accessories, photo shoot props, anything.”
Somi’s latest album, her sixth, honors this slice of Harlem, just north of Central Park, between Lenox Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and the West Africans who made it their home starting in the 1980s. The record is titled Petite Afrique — Little Africa — and most days, that’s how 116th still feels, with its African groceries, restaurants, and money wire agencies.
But the area is changing fast. Petite Afrique is Somi’s attempt, through a song cycle, to celebrate her neighbors as gentrification pushes them out, many to the Bronx, others to parts unknown. It is also to acknowledge what they have meant to her. “I’m somebody who found home here because of their presence,” she says.
Harlem was a natural draw for Somi when she moved here a decade ago. The cradle of African-American culture, with a large African community, it spoke to her identities: jazz singer, daughter of the diaspora, anthropology graduate from the University of Illinois. Harlem is where she made the album that revealed her, If the Rains Come First, in 2009, and where she came back from a residency in Nigeria, which resulted in The Lagos Music Salon (2014), a song journey about that city and its residents’ pains and joys.
Now she has made her New York album — albeit about a specific corner of the city. Petite Afrique is hyper-local from the start. It opens with a found-sound montage: The C train screeches into the 116th Street station; amid a flurry of voices and languages, a woman says on the phone, in French, “Oui, je suis à Harlem.” The song that follows, “Alien,” is Somi’s reinvention of a familiar Sting tune. “I’m an African in New York,” she sings.
At the busy intersection of 116th and Frederick Douglass, everything has changed. The area is being turned into an entertainment district. A famous Senegalese restaurant has given way to a 7-Eleven. A wine shop has landed next to a halal market. The area’s main West African mosque, Masjid Aqsa, got evicted in 2013; the space is now a construction site. Somi used to pass the mosque on her way to the train, and its vanishing hit her hard.
“This was the center of the community in many ways,” she says. “Every major holiday, it would be overflowing.” Outside, vendors sold clothing and snacks. Then they were gone. “When the mosque closed, you didn’t see people picketing. They just quietly went away. What’s tragic is the idea they could disappear and there’s no archive.”
It’s a melancholy setup, yet the music on Petite Afrique belies the somber premise. “It doesn’t have to be sad!” Somi says. The core of her band — guitarist Liberty Ellman, pianist Toru Dodo, and bassist Michael Olatuja — has been together for many years; joined here by drummer Nate Smith, they have honed a sound that’s airy, groove-based, and kinetic. An equally strong horn section, featuring saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and Marcus Strickland and Etienne Charles on trumpet, adds color and funk to several tracks. Singer Aloe Blacc appears on the raucous jam “The Gentry,” which riffs on the tensions between new residents and the longtime drum circle in Marcus Garvey Park.
The lyrics, meanwhile, are character studies — hybrids of people Somi knows, others she just saw passing by, and just as much of herself, reflecting on the process. As soon as she felt the call to make music about the area, she says, she started questioning her own role. “You have to confront the fact that you’re part of that gentrification,” she says. “That was a bit of a crisis for me. Am I operating through some kind of weird colonial lens?”
Her solution was to go deeper: meet more people, stay and talk longer, learn their lives more completely. She made sure to tune in not just to the disruption in the community, but also to its aspirations and successes. “It’s not just about the struggle,” she says. “To acknowledge immigrants is first to acknowledge their dreams.” She also sensed that with fewer Africans around, her ties to those who remained mattered even more. Somi’s late father, a professor, was a staunch Pan-Africanist. “He would have said yes, tell their story — this is our story too!”
At once social and personal, Petite Afrique follows the spirit of lyrical forebears like Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba (the latter of whom is the subject of Somi’s next venture, a stage play she has workshopped at Joe’s Pub). It is also, by the force of events, political. “I made this album during the election campaign, but I didn’t realize how timely it would be,” Somi says. “For talking about the dignity of immigrants to suddenly be a political act is unsettling. But I’m thankful to be able to tell these stories.”
Following a performance celebrating its release at the Highline Ballroom on March 29, Somi’s Petite Afrique debuts March 31 via OKeh Records/Sony Masterworks.