Somi’s Brilliant Petite Afrique

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I’ve known of Somi, the magnificent singer and songwriter for about ten years, and for much of that time I thought that her music was a great sound in search of a comparable style or at least repertoire. It’s a dilemma faced by lots of vocalists: think Tierney Sutton before she hit on the Joni Mitchell catalog or Cassandra Wilson before she fused Delta Blues into her sound and classic rock into her book.

Somi’s dilemma—or rather my dilemma with Somi’s music–was complicated by the fact that she deftly merged elements or R&B into her hybrid of African music and jazz. In this regard she was a little ahead of her time as Kelly Lee Evans, Jose James and Gregory Porter have integrated rhythm and blues into mainstream jazz with the same elegance if not quite the same monumental sales figures that occurred when Norah Jones brought singer/songwriterdom in to the genre 15 ago.  In Somi’s case, it seemed to me that she suffered the vagaries of people not quite knowing what to make of her talent.

In 2014, Somi resolved all my quandaries with her release, “Lagos Music Salon” (Okeh), it was a dynamic song cycle focused on the dynamic, diverse culture of Nigeria’s capital city. Not only was it a fascinating musical portrait of Africa in a way that it is rarely viewed in Western society, that is as contemporary, urbane and wise.  Yet the release slipped by me as I was in the midst of leaving one job, discovering that despite my many successes in that field, there were no comparable positions available, and I had only begun to write regularly again after a two-year hiatus.   When I caught up to it, I was floored.

Her new recording, Petite Afrique (Okeh) didn’t sneak up on me but it caught me at another moment when writing about it for publication wasn’t in the question.  Yet, it’s a stunning recording, the sort of music that starts me thinking about end of the year lists.   I could readily imagine certain PR people pitching me that this recording is like an imaginary collaboration between Sade, Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen but in Harlem with Noname and the Internet as guests.  And even that doesn’t quite catch the broad range of stellar music here.  Nor does it scratch the surface of the substance.  Somi’s recording is a song cycle about a swath of Harlem along west 116th Street, issues of identity (African American in the international sense versus African-American in the domestic sense), gentrification, roots and authenticity.  The music is savvy, diverse and sumptuous.  In an era that values volume, Somi’s music has found a way to speak impactfully in a gentle croon.

Somi

After a collage of ambient sounds that locate Petite Afrique in Harlem near the C train stop, “Alien,” the second track addresses the breadth of themes in the recording.  A gentle piano chord asserts itself then retreats then as if suspended in a diffuse space, Somi’s voice enters, “I don’t drink coffee/I take tea, my dear/Some extra rice please on the side/And you can hear it in my accent when I talk/I’m an African in New York.”

The lyrics are a revision of Shinehead’s 1992 underground classic, “Jamaican in New York,” but the tone, subdued and complex is totally different.     It’s as if a pair of Rick Owen sneakers had been exchanged for an intricately patterned Jean Paul Gaultier dress.    The song delves into the complexity of African identity in a proudly diverse city, and ends—as does the original—with the firmly delivered advice of “be yourself, no matter what they say.” Somi is making such revisions part of her arsenal.  On “Lagos Music Salon,” she turned the Cole Porter nugget “Love for Sale” into “Brown Round Things,” a wistful rumination on the objectification of black womanhood.

“Alien” is the opening salvo for an album with songs that circle back to parsing the different meanings of African American, a subject on which Somi is an expert as the American born daughter of parents from Uganda and Rwanda, and her “Lagos Music Salon” came about after a fellowship in Nigeria.  It also deals with the similarities, the silence in “Black Enough” after invoking the chant “Hands Up /Don’t Shoot” is a vital reminder that long before the name Michael Brown was charged with meaning, Amadou Diallo was executed in a hail of 41 police bullets probably for reaching for his ID.

 

Harlem is of course has undergone massive change.  Nine years ago, I was on the startup crew for a wine bar on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and during my months of going up to the neighborhood, it couldn’t escape my attention that while the commercial enterprises still felt Black, a frequent majority of people getting off the train with me at 125th St. were not.    Thus in songs like  “The Gentry” the class differentials take centerstage, and the recording invites comparisons to others that have chronicled  postmillennial change in New York like “Brooklyn Babylon” by Darcy James Argue and Secret Society.

Somi’s road to prominence has been unconventional.  Her credits include being a TED Senior Fellow, and stints as Artist-in-Residence at Park Avenue Armory, UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Baryshnikov Arts Center.  It’s emblematic of Somi’s unique music but also of how musicians must improvise their careers as much as their music these days.

In an era when albums have given way to tracks and playlists, both “Petite Afrique” and “Lagos Music Salon” offer forceful arguments for the value of longform statement.  It’s easy to imagine Somi’s music as the soundtrack for the machinations of Ifemelu and Obinze should Lupia Nyong’o’s film verson of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah get made.  It’s also fairly easy to imagine a young Somi listening to concept albums in her youth and thinking deeply about music.

 

 

 

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Bullish: And in the End…

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

Celtics 4

Bulls 2

Ultimately, the Bulls playoff series with Boston was a microcosm of their season. Enthusiastic, smart overachievement at the start followed by, a long, desultory reality check. That the Boston Celtics struggled against a Bulls team with all of its starters healthy tells you more about the Eastern Conference this season and about this Bulls team than it does any particular weakness in the Celtics. Yes, the Celtics are a subpar rebounding team, but a casual glance at http://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_2017.html would reveal that.

Yes, a better constructed team would be able to weather the loss of a player like Rajon Rondo, and maybe a better constructed team would be able to handle Jimmy Butler’s injury, but these Bulls were a miserably constructed outfit. There was no three point shooting for much of the season. The inability to establish rotations hurt the defense and by Game 4 and 5 of this series, coach Fred Hoiberg was forced to grasp at straws grabbing guys from the far end of the bench and hoping for the best.

During the fourth quarter of Game 6, chants of “Fire Fred Hoiberg” rained down from the fans who stayed despite a deficit that swelled to 29 points by the end of the third quarter. Hoiberg is part of the problem. He has failed to control the locker room, establish good rotations and develop young players. He was known as an offensive wizard at Iowa State, but in his two seasons with the Bulls, the team has finished 20th and 23rd in Offensive Rating. But the failure goes deeper. The Bulls front office duo of Gar Forman and John Paxson show few signs of savvy in building another championship contender. The fact that they haven’t squelched the Jimmy Butler trade rumors is probably all you need to know.

I started writing this blog in October because I thought it would be interesting to follow this team, and it was. But I also hated this team more than almost any other Bulls team I’ve followed in the 48 years I’ve been a fan. The team had talent—albeit often mismatched—and potential, but the players often seemed to not care. How else do you explain losing to the Nets when a win would have clinched the seventh seed on the final Saturday of the season. The hiring of Hoiberg was supposed to cleanse the team of the malaise that set in during the final season under Tom Thibodeau. It didn’t. With the exception of Butler and Robin Lopez, the players looked like they were just punching a clock far too often.

I didn’t see much of Game 6. It was a busy night at the store for craft beer sales. By the time I left the deficit was 25. A coworker asked why I was racing home to see it. I’m sure he expected that I might have some agenda for seeing Bobby Portis, Joffrey Lauvergne, Jerian Grant, Michael Carter Williams and Denzel Valentine play garbage time. I didn’t. I told him that there wasn’t going to be anymore Bulls basketball till October. That was reason enough and I rushed off into the New York night.

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Bullish 04.24.17: Adjustments Wanted

Bullish: Thoughts on Game 4

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

Confession: I didn’t see Game 3. I typically work until 9ish on Fridays and my intention was to punch out and rush to the closest television. When I saw that the Celtics had a formidable lead with only four minutes to go. I shrugged and changed to Plan B.

Anyway, going into this series, I wasn’t daunted by the most of the matchups, but one frightened me big time the coaches: Brad Stevens vs. Fred Hoiberg. Stevens is a master of X’s and O’s and Hoiberg simply isn’t. Stevens uses personnel with a concept. Hoiberg uses them with a guess.

The Bulls dominated Games 1 and 2 with their size, amassing formidable rebound advantages and owning the paint. Stevens first response in Game 2 was to contest this advantage with effort, but that left Bulls shooters open along the perimeter, and Chicago punished them with excellent three point shooting. So Stevens tried a different approach, Boston went small to start Game 3, inserting wing Gerald Green into the starting lineup. This forced Bulls bigs to chase along the perimeter, and Stevens changed the pick and roll set ups for his star guard Isaiah Thomas, forcing Bulls center Robin Lopez away from the rim. It worked like a charm in Game 3 and set up what I didn’t want: the Bulls fates depended on Hoiberg matching wits with Stevens.

The Bulls finished the third quarter of Game 4 with a lineup of Joffrey Lauvergne, Bobby Portis, Isaiah Canaan, Michael Carter-Williams and Jimmy Butler. Yep a quintet that has logged very few minutes together. Hoiberg has fiddled with his rotations all year and his inability to establish continuity any showed in that key moment of the season. The game was tied; then it wasn’t. The Celtics went on a 12-0 run to re-establish a comfortable lead, which they never reliinquished.

Much has been made of the absence of Rajon Rondo from the Bulls lineup, and yeah, he was a major factor in the team’s early wins in this series, but he wasn’t the only factor. The team’s inability to make adjustments now put them at a severe disadvantage for the rest of the series, and it further calls into question why Hoiberg has a job.

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Bullish: Game 2 ECFR Reflections

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

At the outset of this NBA season, I wanted two things from the Bulls: a regime change and a clear vision of the future. As the season wore on, it became apparent that nothing short of a Brooklyn-like performance was going to change the front office lineup, but I held out hope for a clear vision of the future. It looks like it’s taken until the first round of the playoffs, but some clarity is now available.

In their 111-97 Game 2 win over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference First Round series, the Bulls expanded on the strengths they displayed in their surprising Game One win.

Here are some likes and dislikes

The starters dominated. Can there be any denial that this is a bad matchup for Boston. The Bulls starters initiated substantial runs in each of the first three quarters, 24-6 in the first, 17-5 in the second, and 19-6 in the third. In the fourth quarter, a lineup of Felicio, Zipser, Rondo, Butler and Wade triggered a 10-0 run that made the score 105-86 with 5:17 to go and likely set the Boston fans toward the exits.

Again, coach Fred Hoiberg rode the hot hand off the bench. In Game 1, Bobby Portis fulfilled some of his substantial promise with a remarkably efficient 19 point 9 rebound game. In Game 2, it was forward Paul Zipser who earned a moment at the podium with a 16 point game on 6-8 shooting and two for three from behind the arc. He got 29 minutes of burn while Portis and Jerian Grant, another key game one contributor sat.

The Bulls have become a pretty good three point shooting team. After opening the series 0-11, the Bulls have shot a sizzling 18-39 from deep. When Boston looked to narrow the gap on the boards, the Bulls took advantage with stellar shooting from deep. No one will confuse this team for the Houston Rockets anytime soon, but they have learned to love the three ball, and it has nearing the cusp of an extraordinary upset.

Dislike

Michael Carter Williams should only see the floor at garbage time. Looking for an improvement on Grant’s poor play in Game 2, Hoiberg looked way down the bench for MCW and the former Rookie of the Year showed why he’s en route to be a Jeopardy answer soon with a coupla heaves and inconsistent defense. The team has a playoff rotation and needs to stick with it.

But yeah, that’s it. This, more than Game 1, was the one that the Bulls “stole.” The Bulls shot 51% from the field against a team whose primary defensive attribute is limiting opponents field goal percentage. That isn’t likely to repeat, but the Bulls have played intelligent, poised basketball to get halfway toward an upset that will reverberate through the NBA season.

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Bullish 04.18.17: Deep

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

If, by a bizarre twist of fate, your life depended on choosing the winning side of a three point shooting contest, it’s unlikely that you would ever choose three players from the current Chicago Bulls team over their counterparts for the Golden State Warriors. In fact, even if you were an avid Bulls fan, you probably wouldn’t consider it. Yet, there is a universe where the Bulls shot better from deep, and it isn’t a parallel one. After the all star break, the Bulls were a better team shooting from behind the arc.

After the beak, the Warriors shot 37.3% per game from distance; the Bulls averaged 38.2.

The point isn’t that the D-Wade, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic et al. are better than Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant et al, but rather that a conversation can credibly exist on this point. For the first two thirds of the season, the Bulls were an abomination of a three point shooting team. Through 57 games, the team was suffering the rare trifecta of being last in the NBA in three point attempts, makes and of course percentage. After the break, they were sixth. The change occurred despite a trade that dealt away their best long range shooter, Doug McDermott too!

The Bulls improvement can be tied to that trade, though as it also sent away starting power forward Taj Gibson. His minutes were taken by Mirotic and Bobby Portis, both of whom are enthusiastic three point shooters. Also Wade suffered an elbow injury that sidelined him for most of March and April; he was replaced for the most part by Paul Zipser, a rookie who also shot often from deep. Lastly, Bulls point guards, Grant and Rajon Rondo (!) shot well from behind the arc. And to paraphrase Senator Dirksen, a little downtown here and a little downtown there and sooner or later you have a real threat from deep.

That the Bulls improvement in 3 point shooting was almost entirely coincidental, makes it a sort of stealth weapon. Overall the Bulls ranked 24th in the NBA in long distance shooting percentage, which would seem that it’s a defensive category that would take care of itself. Yet in the Chicagoans game one win against Boston, the Bulls shooting from deep paralleled their season. They missed their first 11 shots from behind the arc and went into halftime shooting 2 of 14 from three point range. Yet, in the second half they made six of their 11 attempts as they took control of the game. Eight of 25 doesn’t feel prepossessing, which is why the Bulls long distance shooting may be their secret weapon approaching game two. That’s something that the Warriors could never say.

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Bullish 04.17.17: On Game 1 of the First Round

Bulls 106

Celtics 102

With apologies to Zach Lowe, here are some things I liked and didn’t like.

Likes

The Bulls gameplan represented an intelligent and thorough understanding of their strengths and the Celtics weaknesses. In a word, it’s rebounding. The Bulls ranked 4th and 12th in Offensive and Defensive Rebound percentage; the Celtics ranked 27th and 25th. Thus the Bulls aimed to bully the Bostonians in the paint and they did. They outrebounded the Celtics 53 to 36 and 20 to 12 on the offensive glass. That’s a lot of extra possessions.

The Butler-athon in the fourth quarter wasn’t the usual hero ball. The fourth quarter turned into the Jimmy Butler show but it wasn’t the usual give Jimmy Buckets the ball and get out of the way. They ran plays, lots of plays, no really LOTS of plays. JB got the ball coming off screens at the elbow, screens along the baseline, pin downs along the arc, and so on. The Celtics are an extremely well prepared team, yet they often had no idea where the screens were coming from.

When Bobby Portis demonstrated that he had the hot hand and Niko Mirotic demonstrated that he didn’t, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg stayed with Portis. This was coach Fred Hoiberg’s first playoff game as a coach. In the postseason, the long term ceases to be measured in years or months or even weeks from now, it becomes it measured in minutes, and Hoiberg demonstrated some understanding of that by staying with Portis at the power forward, and the second year player rewarded the confidence of his coach by having his best game as a pro. He produced 19 points (on eight of ten shooting), nine boards, three assists and two blocked shots and a plus 12. Who knows maybe on Tuesday he’ll go back to getting lost on screens defensively and heaving contested bricks, but tonight he was the right choice and Hoiberg made the right call nailing Niko’s butt to the bench in the fourth quarter

The Bulls went with a playoff rotation. For the entirety of the 82 game rotation, Hoiberg used players as if he was trying to figure out what he had. Most coaches do that for a few weeks even two months, so it was more than a little discouraging that 60 games into the season the Bulls rotation was unsettled, literally changing from night to night. Yet in Game 1, the Bulls played nine guys, Butler, Wade, Rondo, Lopez, Portis, Mirotic, Grant, Zipser and Felico. Even in the fourth quarter of a playoff game on the road, there was substantial continuity.

Dislikes

The number of possessions where Rondo was tasked with guard the Celtics star Isaiah Thomas. Rondo can’t guard anyone that quick anymore, and the defensive gameplan should have accounted for this.

The disorganization in late game out of bounds plays. Every team should have about a half dozen out of bounds plays designed to get the ball in the hands of a good free throw shooter so that protecting a lead is easier. The Bulls, even with a timeout to burn failed at this late in the fourth quarter and the final score was closer than it needed to be.

But that’s about it. The Bulls demonstrated that this isn’t your usual one seed versus eight seed playoff series with the win. Only twelve wins separate the two teams by record, and even less than that if you consider point differential. Yes, the Celtics could still win this series in five games, they are demonstrably better than the Bulls. But in their game one win, the Bulls showed some savvy and smarts that have been absent far too often in the regular season.

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Music: Kevin Eubanks at Birdland

Thursday night, just after two friends joined me at a table near the stage at Birdland, one of them asked me “are you reviewing?”  It was an earnest inquiry even if it hit a sore spot.  Concert reviews are no longer part of newspaper journalism I told him, doing my best to mask the muted bitterness that comes from spending decades honing a skill that suddenly has no market value.

Before we delved too deeply into that subject, the music started.  The sounds were by the Kevin Eubanks Group, a quartet featuring the former Tonight Show Music Director on a tiny guitar (it looked like a toy but sounded like a monster) joined by three fellow all stars, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and trumpeter Nicholas Payton.  The gig was in support of their new recording, “East West Time Line” (Mack Avenue), but what attracted me was that the last time I’d heard Eubanks and Holland, at the Village Vanguard last winter, they were magical.  Birdland is bigger and more formal, more midtown.  I was curious to see if their magic was portable.

The set began with the band gracefully weaving textures into riffs and playing off of them.  After arriving at a figure that sounded Monkish, they began to dig into grooves with solos and duos and trios emerging organically from the fabric of the music.  At times the rapport was so high and intuitive that it seemed like a jam by musicians who had been playing together for years even though there were music stands, sheets and Holland told me afterward that he was new to playing with Tain and Payton.  A slight narrative formed.  Payton’s solos seemed rooted in hard bop while Eubanks;s approach was rooted in country blues and West African styles.  Bit by bit as the set progressed the two seemed to be moving toward some sort of common ground.  The solos sizzled as if each musician was eager to top what had previously been played without breaking from the intense mood and deep grooves of the music.  When Holland took one of the last solos of the 90 minute set, the club was rapt.  Not even the sound of ice clinking in a glass was heard.

Upon the completion, Eubanks needed a minute before addressing the crowd.  It was as if he was returning from a very deep place.  The audience was making a similar journey.

My friend looked at me with wonder and asked “is this what you get to hear all the time?”  I assured him that these guys are special, and I realized that the muted bitterness felt long gone.

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