Sonia Aimy: Singer/Songwriter/Actress Ignites Audiences with African World Music
With her inimitable, velvety voice, Nigerian-born singer, songwriter and actress Sonia Aimy is the quintessential embodiment of contemporary African world music. Her sound blends Afro-jazz, highlife, and call-and-response African griot tradition, in easy flowing, yet virtuosic performances.
Her irresistible rhythms and ...
The dream wouldn’t leave singer Sonia Aimy alone. She was in a family compound, teaching young people to sing and dance. Whenever their movements and sounds reached the right place, when their trance went deep enough, the ground beneath their feet would burst into flame, a moment she recounts in the song “Voices of Orisa.”
“I shared this idea with [Nobel Prize-winning playwright] Wole Soyinka,” explains Aimy. “He told me not to be afraid of the message. I knew I had to sing it.”
This conviction and vision animate Nigerian Spirit (release date: June 16, 2017), the resulting blend of a childhood in Nigeria, a busy career in jazz and theater in Italy, and a new life in Ontario, where in addition to her performing career, she is launching a new line of jewelry and apparel inspired by her travels. Aimy reflects on her heritage, using the Italian penchant for romantic metaphor and a globetrotting sonic palette to express her hopes for her native land and for Africa as a whole.
Despite dire situations, the struggles she pays tribute to in pieces like “A Dream for Somalia,” Aimy paints a portrait on Spirit designed to move and inspire, with interlocking grooves and jazz flair, in multiple languages. It’s part of what Aimy feels is the heart of Nigerian culture. “No matter the situation, we’re all responsive people. The poorest person will still manage to make you laugh. You have to try to tell the story in a positive way. It may be dramatic, but you will still laugh because of the narrative style. That’s the key. That’s the thread that draws it all together.”
Aimy grew up steeped in professional music and dance, as her mother was a performer in a prominent cultural group in Benin City, Aimy’s hometown in Nigeria. She would watch her mother rehearse, learning the songs and movements. She became the youngest chorister in the local Catholic church choir, opening the world of notated Western music. “My music now is a combination of the experience with gospel music, as well as the traditional music of my people and my formal training,” explains Aimy, a sound evident on songs like “Ase.” “In Edo music, you have room for improvisation. There are lots of runs, call and response, solos. It’s very powerful.”
This combination’s power dawned on Aimy once she arrived in Torino, Italy at music school. A teacher turned her on to the work of Mahalia Jackson, which in turn led to a serious interest in jazz. “When I first went to the school and was told my vocal style was more jazzy, that studying that style would help me, I was skeptical,” she recalls. “Then I listened to Mahalia Jackson. Sometimes I’d really feel myself through her. I thought, this could be me. I’d think of the songs I sung back home. I really related to the spirit of her work, though I didn’t know that much about African-American history. This convinced me to study jazz.”
Yet Italy also left its mark on the singer and songwriter. “The Italian feel in my music lies in metaphor. How metaphorically they write about love and life; it’s influenced me a lot,” muses Aimy. “They have a way of writing about things metaphorically, not directly.”
Aimy’s career in Italy eventually centered on the theater, and she found herself touring relentlessly with theater companies, as well as creating her own works for the stage. On the road, she would often jot down small ideas, snatches of melody that she later developed into full-fledged songs. One, a little riff with syllables Aimy turned into “Chotima,” had more meaning than Aimy expected. An artist friend originally from Gabon came to visit and heard Aimy sing a line. To Aimy’s shock, she exclaimed: “You’re singing in my language! This is my language!” They worked together on lyrics, and the song to a soulmate was born.
Yet for all the positive emotion and metaphorical musings, Nigerian Spirit flows directly from Aimy’s concern and rage at what she sees in her homeland, in Africa, in the world. “This album draws on my anger about what’s happened in Africa,” says Aimy. “It captures my rage about Boko Haram, about the war in places like Somalia. Ever since I started my career, I rarely had a break from the stage, from touring, from networking. When I did, I connected more to people, to the news, to the world and these crises. I started to feel such anger.”
She saw what befell her fellow Africans on the waters of the Mediterranean and wrote “Lampedusa,” a tribute to those drowned at sea as they tried to reach Italy and a better life in Europe. Her anger resolves into potent calls to move forward, calls her fans from across the continent have heard. When Aimy performed “A Dream for Somalia” as part of a community event in Toronto, many in the audience wanted to hear it in their own language. They translated the words for the singer, and she learned to sing them.
What remains the same, regardless of place or language, is the spirit, the images that spark hope. “When you write something, it’s a shadow that overwhelms you. It brings out an image,” reflects Aimy. “It’s like a womb that brings something new into the world.”