I’m sitting in this hip new coffee shop in West Oakland. While sipping on my insanely expensive soy latte, a song I’m familiar with begins to play: Louis Armstrong’s classic, ” West End Blues.” At that moment I feel removed from my current situation as I instantaneously feel nostalgic for an era I never had the opportunity to be a part of. An era many West Oakland transplants may never know previously existed in what they now call home.
Once affectionately dubbed “Harlem of the West”, record shops and jazz clubs once lined a formally vibrant 7th Street. The infamous Slim Jenkins Supper Club located at 1748 featured many jazz musicians of the era (picture Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, B.B King, Dinah Washington.)
In fact, “West End Blues” has strong Oakland connections- Earl Hines, credited as being one of the most influential figures in jazz development, and one of Armstrong’s closest friends and band mates in His Hot Five, was long time resident of the city until his death in 1983. The track was recorded on OKeh records, a record label founded in 1918 by Otto K.E Heinemann.
Catering to the jazz community, many jazz greats called OKeh home at some point. Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child was recorded under the historic music label, while other notable names, such as Sidney Bachet, Duke Ellington, and Mamie Smith recorded under OKeh. The label ran up into the 60’s until the label closed its doors. It was revived shortly 1994, but quickly went back into retirement by 2000.
Now songstress Somi takes reign as OKeh records reopens its doors, launching a new era in jazz. After first listen of her recently released album The Lagos Music Salon, I couldn’t get enough of her velvety smooth voice enveloped around jazzy notes. I had the chance to speak with Somi as she launches her tour, a collaboration with her and community art spaces, creating an intimate atmosphere, allowing the audience a chance to get up close.
The daughter of East African immigrants from Uganda and Rwanda, Somi infuses African beats into her tracks, creating what she calls new African jazz. “I think the beauty of being first generation American, or being first generation anything is being from multiple places. As an artist, that means you’re always trying to voice a sense of place. And that place is not fixed for me. When people are telling their life story through their creative practice or telling their world view, that story for me cannot be linear. It has to be something for me that lives between the here and the there.”
To prepare for the project, Somi went on an 18 month creative sabbatical in Lagos, Nigeria. “I had been looking for opportunities to go back to the continent, trying to figure out where would make sense. I loved the idea of going to a city that wasn’t so familiar, finding a chance to discover it for myself while figuring out what I wanted to say while there. I also wanted again to have that chance to look closely at Africa, instead of looking at it through the diasporic, romantic kind of lens. I wanted to see how that would impact my creative process-lyrical and musical inspirations.”
Recognized as a TED Fellow for her cultural activism, Somi uses her talents as platform to bring social awareness to pressing issues. In her song “When Rivers Cry,” featuring rapper Common, Somi targets issues such as Africa’s environmental caste system, and the importance of environmental consciousness.
Another track off The Lagos Music Salon, “Two Dollar Day” was inspired by the Occupy Nigeria protests, a response to the Nigerian government’s removal of fuel subsidies, driving up the cost of gas. “There’s a wide range of things I address. When I’m telling some of these stories, they might be a bit heavy, like my song “Brown Round Things”, which is about prostitution. But it’s not so much about that, it’s not about placing judgement on being a prostitute, its more about recognizing the humanity of all of these people.”
Listening to The Lagos Music Salon was like picking up the phone and hearing the voice of an old friend you hadn’t heard from in years. Her style embodies the golden era of jazz with an updated spin.
For me, jazz and Oakland are interchangeable. Like the city, jazz is eclectic and versatile. It continues to change and manifest into many forms. Jazz is artsy and funky. Jazz doesn’t discriminate. It’s poetic and progressive. It’s eclectic and lively. It’s all the things I love about Oakland.
You can catch Somi 9/19 and 9/20 at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco for a two evening, four performance show.
Monica Cadena is an Oakland based writer. She focuses on community issues pertaining to urban planning and food justice. She also enjoys writing about arts and culture, particularly her love of music. She studied urban planning at San Francisco State University. When she’s not writing, she enjoys conjuring up new recipes in her kitchen, or enjoying all the Town has to offer.