7 November 2017

Rwanda: Saxophone Maestro Katumwa on His Musical Journey

Photo: The New Times
Isaiah Katumwa

Isaiah Katumwa is a talented jazz musician and one of the most celebrated saxophonists on the continent. The Ugandan artiste was the main performer at the 6th edition of Kigali Jazz Junction Season 3, on Friday, November 3.

The self-taught saxophonist has been on the music scene for more than 20 years, having stormed the international scene at a time when jazz in East Africa did not have a significant following.

Sharon Kantengwa interviewed Katumwa about his musical journey.

Excerpts:

When did your journey in jazz music start?

As a self-taught saxophonist, I had to learn by listening and watching performers, although they were generally in the brass bands, and I was not grown up to access the clubs where the bands with saxophones would be played.

I was drawn more to saxophone as I begun listening to records of good players and imitating them since there were no music schools or even internet.

Briefly describe your musical journey?

I can say it has been a gradual process and a journey of faith, resilience and persistence. A fight for a dream I believed in but had to convince people around me that it was possible.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your life as a saxophonist?

These would be many but, when I look at the influence that God has given to me through my saxophone that could be one of them. Also, being able to perform one-on-one with my icons Hugh Masekela, Jonathan Butler and Kirk Whalum was really fulfilling.

Any performances or moments that stand out in your memory?

These too are many and I hold them dearly to keep me up in the difficult times. One of them like I said before are when I was on stage with the people that I watched from a far, men with experience more than my age yet very positive and excited about my artistry.

Each of these moments was special.

I remember Jonathan Butler requesting me to join him on stage after my set in a crowd of over 15,000 people and I joined him to play songs including my favorite song of his. I first thought he was joking until he called and the crowd loudly cheered.

What about challenges you have faced in your career?

I think having to brand my genre given that I feel many styles inside of me and yet I need to have one that I'm known by. The industry dictates and builds boundaries to genres which I think limit the artistry, especially when my interpretation of smooth jazz is different because it is unique and different.

How does your new album 'This is me' reflect you as an artist and a person?

This is me is the first that I pushed on the global smooth jazz scene. This is the best way I had to introduce my uniqueness, which is my 'Africanness', smooth jazz influence on my music and I themed the album with many love songs.

How do you balance your freedom and desire to express yourself to a larger audience?

Africans love happy music and dance to most of our music. It's a special element that I try to be true to myself and that is an attribute that I have in common with my audience, but this is also the element that I try to sell to wider audiences. Also, we in Africa have rich cultural sounds and rhythms.

I like exploring those as I fuse them with smooth jazz influences. Finally, jazz is only coming back to Africa so it has to be interpreted in an accessible way that my African audience can understand and appreciate.

Which three composers have influenced you musically?

They are many but if I should pick only three I could say Hugh Masekela, Dave Koz and Michael Bolton

How do you reach out to young talents who look up to you?

Besides sharing my story or journey with young musicians to be able to inspire them, I have a program called the Talanta Music Mentorship program which I use to do one on one mentoring and I've brought these young musicians close to me.

Secondly, I am accessible online through social media in order to respond to questions and give advice and we're starting another program in January which will be a music school and Mentorship centre.

What is your advice for budding saxophonists?

Be yourself and honest in your expression.

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