Somi Channels the Spirit of Miriam Makeba in Theater and Song

Somi Channels the Spirit of Miriam Makeba in Theater and Song

The jazz singer has long-admired the late Miriam Makeba, and through a stage production and an album of covers, shares that appreciation with the world.

Like many children of African immigrants of this generation, Somi grew up with the music of Miriam Makeba being ubiquitous around her. She can’t tell you exactly when she first heard Pata Pata or Malaika, or even when she first heard Makeba’s name, but, for as long as she can remember, the iconic South African singer has been part of Somi’s world. “She was always just the soundtrack to my life, in some way,” she tells OkayAfrica.

But in her 20s, as Somi – born Somi Kakoma – started becoming a singer in her own right, she gained a newfound respect for Mama Africa. “She gave me permission to be all of the things; the transnational African with a certain type of Western sensibility as well. She gave me permission to be both those things; an African woman who's obviously also an American woman, influenced by both continents and cultures.” It’s this respect and admiration that led Somi to write and produce a stage show about the late Makeba, as well as create an album covering some of Makeba’s most beloved songs to go along with it.

Born in Illinois to immigrant parents from Rwanda and Uganda, Somi has spent the past decade carving out her own space as a jazz vocalist, bridging her Midwestern roots with her East African heritage in everything she does. Her most recent album, Holy Room - Live at Alte Oper with Frankfurt Radio Big Band won her the 2021 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Vocal Album, as well as a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Before that, she told the story of African immigrants in Harlem on Petite Afrique, and brought Nigeria to the US on The Lagos Music Salon, which topped international jazz charts.

While Somi’s music career has been flourishing, she’s also been exploring another side of her creativity – in theater. Part of that involves what she calls a “cultural memory project,” which she started seven years ago as a way to honor Makeba. At the center of it, a stage production, called Dreaming Zenzile, that revisits Makeba’s life, using the night of her death, just after a performance in Castel Volturno, Italy, as its starting point.

“I realized very quickly, there was so much I didn't know about her, which actually shocked me as someone who grew up listening to her, as someone who claimed to be some sort of lifelong admirer, fan, devotee of Mama Miriam,” says Somi. She knew about Makeba being an influential voice in the anti-apartheid movement – how she was exiled from South Africa for taking part in the film, Come Back Africa, which revealed to audiences the suffering Black people experienced under apartheid, how she spoke out at the United Nations, how her songs detailed a life of struggle in South Africa.

“But I certainly did not know all of the personal trials she was moving through, beyond the very challenging trials of apartheid and exile,” adds Somi. Indeed, the hardships of Makeba’s life are not as well-publicized as her accomplishments: her life was marked by difficulty from a young age when she went to jail with her mother who was arrested for illegally selling beer to provide for her family.

As Somi learnt more about Makeba’s life, she wanted to share her findings with others. “I thought, ‘How is it that this woman who we've always celebrated as the first great lady of African song, and who was such a huge celebrity here in the United States at one point and had such an influence on global culture right at the height of her career in the '60s, how is that we don't know these things?’ And what I realized was that there was this sort of sustained cultural erasure that had happened that started with her marriage to Stokely Carmichael, and after that, here in the United States, specifically,” she says.

“It's almost like once she was blacklisted, she really never kind of came back to public space in the same way,” says Somi. “I mean, she came back in the ‘80s with Paul Simon during the Graceland tour, but for about 20 years, she wasn't really working in the United States. And as we know, because of what the United States means in terms of culture, and its place in holding the world, unfortunately, that means that she, in many ways, hasn't been heralded in the way that I believe that she deserves to be, in this country.”

Part of why she created Dreaming Zenzile was to rectify that. The play, which Somi developed as a Sundance Theater Fellow, is directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. While it paints a picture of Makeba’s life in song, Somi wanted her cultural memory project to also tap into the connection she shares with the late musician as a singer, hence the album of covers, Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba, which is available from March 4th -- what would have been Makeba's 90th birthday.

Somi set out to reimagine the songs she’d grown up with. She dove into the research, combing through Makeba’s 50-60 year recording catalog, enlisting translations of the songs that were not in English, and seeking to understand what was happening around Makeba at the time she was performing those songs – socially, politically, culturally.

While she initially wasn’t going to include Makeba’s breakthrough 1967 hit, Pata Pata, on the album, since it wasn’t one the late singer herself cared greatly for, Somi did – giving it a more spacious, expansive quality, to try “remind listeners of what [Makeba] was carrying every time she beckoned us to dance along with her.” On a number of songs that make up the album – Somi's fifth studio one – she enlisted notable names, some from South Africa, like Nduduzo Makhatini for Khuluma and Msakifor Milele, some from further abroad, like Gregory Porter and Angelique Kidjo, who herself has covered Makeba before, for Strawberries and Jike’lemaweni, respectively.

Working on the album allowed Somi to give more context to Makeba’s life, as an artist, as a woman, as an African. “I'm really interested in multi-dimensional ways of storytelling, and that's something I've leaned into over time, more and more over my last few records.” The album and play work together to create a conversation about Makeba’s life and impact, even now, 14 years after her death. The play was due to open just before the pandemic but now is traveling through a world premiere rollout from the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis to the McCarter Theatre Center to New York City, where it will play at the Apollo on March 19th.

'Zenzile’ was Makeba’s first name, in her mother tongue of Xhosa, meaning ‘you have done it to yourself.’ The way in which she lived out her name, right until the end, was deeply moving for Somi. “She had a heart attack, in the wings, right after finishing her concert, and passed,” she says. “The fact that she finished the concert then left really speaks to a certain type of agency that she had both in her living and in her dying.”

For Somi, the profound moment is a metaphor for how Makeba lived her life. “The grace and the generosity she showed up with every single time she got on stage,” she says. “That became so clear again, once I understood her life story, that she has so much grace, and so much generosity despite all of the things – despite being an exile, despite surviving cervical cancer, despite all the things that she carried.” It’s all of this – and so much more, that Somi’s tribute to Mama Africa lets us remember.