April 2011 Spotlight: Krannert Center for the Performing Arts + Somi

Krannert Center for the Performing Arts presented Somi in Champaign, Illinois, in January 2011.

This Performing Arts Fund—supported engagement featured three public performances in intimate, club-style seating at the Studio Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, along with residency activities throughout the community. Singer-songwriter Somi is an innovative and boundary-pushing performer who reflects a commitment to global citizenship and social change. To achieve those goals, she has founded a non-profit arts organization, New Africa Live, committed to shaping multidisciplinary events that celebrate contemporary African artists. Somi has collaborated and performed with Bobby McFerrin, Baaba Maal, John Legend, Cassandra Wilson, Mos Def, Paul Simon and Nicholas Payton. Most recently, internationally renowned Israeli artist Idan Raichel featured Somi on his latest album Within My Walls (Cumbancha), on the track “Maisha,” which Somi also co-wrote.

In her performances at the Studio Theatre, Somi focused on songs from her latest CD, If the Rains Come First, which thrusts her experiences to the fore in sophisticated, caressing songs written from a life lived between her American upbringing, her Ugandan/Rwandan ancestry, her New York jazz education, and her east African heart. The African cultural legacy, always crucial to her sound, is as vital as ever in her current music, which Somi likes to call New African Soul.

Krannert Center’s Creative Intersections team worked to implement several days of residency activities to engage the University and community with Somi and her band during their visit. Activities included assemblies with more than 700 children at two Champaign Unit 4 elementary schools; a conversation with University of Illinois vocal jazz students; and presentations to a wide variety of community members at the University’s Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration and at the Mills Breast Cancer Institute concert series at the Carle Cancer Center. For both elementary school visits, the opportunity for the exchange of “performance” between a professional artist and music students stood out as a highlight. Both Garden Hills and Bottenfield Schools contain a higher than district average minority student population, as well as low-income and free- and reduced- lunch populations.

“Somi’s musical and poetic presentation helped to exemplify the 2011 MLK community celebration and the impact of international women peacemakers and MLK’s sister peace prize winners. Her exquisite weaving of contemporary and traditional music formed into a presentation that uplifted the attendees and presented the best of the human spirit.” – Samuel Smith, event chair of the University of Illinois’ Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration

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This engagement was a Star Project that deepened participation with a community-based residency.