Somi, real name Laura Kabasomi Kakoma, is the 2018 NAACP Image Award winner for Outstanding Jazz Album. The Rwandan US- based jazz artiste and songwriter recently held an exclusive jazz performance in Kigali with her band as part of her East African tour. Sunday Magazine’s Sharon Kantengwa had a chat with her about her musical tour, career and plans to work with Rwandan artistes.
How did jazz first matter to you as an aspiring artiste?
Jazz to me is freedom and it gave me the freedom to express myself as a songwriter and story teller because it asks everybody to give their voice through music. It allows one to construct themselves on stage in sound and words which for me feels like home as a Rwandan and Ugandan who was born in Illinois, partly lived in Zambia, Lagos, Johannesburg and New York.
Tell us about your East African tour. Can you say that your expectations have been met?
I have come to Rwanda for various events before but showing up with my band in a setting that’s specifically about music that we are doing is a wonderful experience. It’s been very beautiful having so much support which tells me that we want to diversify our musical and cultural space through the arts.
It’s also edifying personally because of the things I want to do on the continent artistically. I just want to sing, tell stories and have an honest conversation with the audience and with the artistes on stage with me.
Every time I come to Africa there is that part of me that I don’t have to explain but is easily understood which encourages me in being more present and grow the cultural economy.
What do you mostly want to communicate with your songs?
My creative practice is committed to voicing the African people, immigrants and women. I try to represent the experience that I witness with my family, my community and my culture.
Do you have any people that have influenced your musical career?
My latest mentor was Hugh Masekela and since he passed on, it has obviously been a heavy hearted time but it also allows me to reflect on his legacy of being a staunch pan African. There is a fierce line, in his music, of being a proud African man, cultural, generous, and a mentor.
He came into my life so many years ago and introduced me to so many people, recorded on my album, invited me to tour with him, performed at Carnegie Hall with him, and for him to be that generous to someone who’s so much younger than him, recognize something in me especially someone born outside of Africa and want to support me is very humbling.
It reminds me of the work that I have to do on the continent for other younger artistes who come after me, and to avail myself. I’m very thankful for his example.
What are your long term plans as regards to your musical presence in the region?
My goal right now is to be more available to the continent and just be present. I feel more centered, more grounded, more whole here than more than anywhere else. I am interested in the mutual exchange because I have so much to learn. It’s important for me, as an artiste, to reconnect with that heritage in a deeper way.
I had a workshop in Rwanda about ten years ago and realised that there are so many things we haven’t put in place yet like intellectual property rights and other factors that influence their music.
I have asked some of my friends and family to help set up a conversation with artistes and I hope to meet as many Rwandans as possible and hear about their journey. I have a dream project in my mind and look forward to the conversation.
What advice would you give to young artistes out there?
Listen to your heart. Take risks even when they scare you and do the work even amidst challenges and criticism because at the end of the day if you have integrity and honesty with your heart, art and the audience then your work shines through you. It shouldn’t be a competition because God provides space for everyone.