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Isaiah Katumwa: A memorable life

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Jacqueline Mahugu | September 5th 2021

Ugandan jazz maestro Isaiah Katumwa.

The hardest question for Isaiah Katumwa to answer has to be what his most memorable moment has been. His life has been a litany of memorable moments. African saxophonist extraordinaire. 

James Gogo, a Kenyan jazz legend, calls him one of the top soprano players in East and Central Africa when I ask him what he thinks of him. It is high praise.

“He is our African Kenny G. I’ll say that. Because we don’t have a soprano player in Africa that we know of. We have tenor players. He plays alto and soprano, but as a soprano player with a good tone? He is the only one in Africa, I believe,” says Gogo.

So it’s not just laymen, even those who know their way around a saxophone, think he’s incredible.

But that’s the other thing. Jazz is a relatively niche genre of music and some consider it music of the bourgeoisie, but Katumwa has broken barriers and made jazz accessible to regular folk.

Once you listen to one of his pieces, you get an idea why. You don’t have to be a fan of the genre to be floored by his music.

Just listen, for example, to his rendition of ‘Wema na Fadhili’ by Reuben Kigame on YouTube. It is otherworldly, the result of a rare talent and skill.

That talent is the reason he protests my question over what his most memorable moment has been, since it has taken him before kings.

“There was a moment that I played for 22 presidents in Kampala. It was during CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting),” he says.

Memorable, but he has also met and worked, on record, with all the seven music greats he grew up admiring –  Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Manu Dibango, Angelique Kidjo, Kirk Whallum, Jonathan Butler, Dave Koz- and meeting each of them was memorable too.

Having his first song go on Billboard Most Added in the United States two years ago was also a big one, although he has had others on Billboard since.

Growing up

A particularly poignant moment, however, was the first time he was interviewed by BBC, in London.

“I took a break and went to the bathroom but all of a sudden my life flashed and I remembered all the pain that I had been through, the challenges I had encountered, the limitations, the tears I had cried before and I realised that I went through all those things so that I could help somebody who might be going through it to believe that it doesn’t matter where you go through. You can actually get somewhere. At that point getting on BBC was a big thing. It was my first time and I was not expecting it.

“I think that was very defining because it was assuring me of my purpose, that I was supposed to do music and people actually listening and appreciating. But also that moment of flashing back my life was giving life to my purpose to actually use my music.”

It had been a long, arduous journey to that moment in the studio. He describes his childhood as “not a very flamboyant one”, which I get the sense is putting it mildly. Because they didn’t have much, he had a guardian growing up. The guardian had a school where they had music.

“He had seen that I had a unique gift and he introduced me to different instruments until the day someone came selling a saxophone and he asked, ‘Will you be able to do this?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I will.’ But I didn’t have a teacher,” he says.

So, he taught himself, and being ‘self-taught’ in those days was quite different from what it means today, in the age of the internet, so he didn’t even know that the saxophone was broken for a long time.

“After a few years, I realised that the saxophone was broken! I had been playing a broken saxophone and I didn’t know, he says.

Playing was fun, but he played like his life depended on it, because it did. He had to work after school so as to pay his fees in high school.

“I used to finish at 2am and the gigs were every day. Going to work was okay, but coming back at 3am, there was no public transport, so I used to foot about eight and a half miles in the middle of the night,” he says. On top of that, he says about 80 percent of the bands he played for back then did not pay him.

Those are the kind of details of his life that flashed before his eyes that day at the interview. An eye-watering moment, because his life is very different today as one of Africa’s and the world’s most celebrated jazz musicians.

Right now, he is on a three-year tour of the United States. His songs are regularly on Billboard’s Most Added list. His music is jazz… with a twist.

Style of music

“I would describe it as the contemporary jazz interpretation of the East African perspective. I am interpreting contemporary jazz with the East African flavour,” he says.

“It’s being myself but I am holding three elements in there – my identity, which is the African flavour, my musical influence, which is contemporary jazz and also my passion, which is the purpose.”

What about a jazz standard? Does he have one or foresee one of his compositions becoming one?

“My approach is not from the traditional or scholastic jazz but the creative interpretation of contemporary jazz and instrumental from my East African perspective or vibe,” he says. “A song like ‘Swahili Breeze’, I foresee becoming one in that regard. It was inspired by elements from the great Charlie Parker.”

He began his three-year tour in the US in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic threw a spanner in the works of the tour plans, as many of the concerts were cancelled.

“I had a plan to record but it was not in this timing. In the middle of the pandemic, the question was, ‘What’s my purpose now?’ Because we were talking about essential workers and I didn’t feature in that list as a musician,” he says with a chuckle.

“So I thought, ‘But I have to be essential. So then I found out that music could be essential, and it is essential in such moments to show positivity, to give people some positive energy. The first questions were, ‘Will we dance again?’ you know, with all the fear.”

That is how he dropped the upbeat hit single ‘Smile On’, which did well and went on Billboard’s Most Added.

“But then I felt that was not enough, because you know the pandemic looked like it was going to be a short while, but it kept going, then I dropped another single called ‘Dance Again’ but then in the process I said, ‘Let me just do an album.’ The album covered songs that I had not released before but I had been performing. And then I got the opportunity of working with some of the best producers like Darren Rahn who is a multiple Grammy-winning producer and saxophonist and Adam Hawley.”

He is still on tour and things are picking up. What has the reception for the album been like?

“The pandemic” he begins in the midst of a sigh, “is real. And lots of the arrangements are not as smooth as I thought they would be but the excitement is evident about most of the songs. Dance Again is playing across different continents right now as contemporary jazz. People love it. In South America, in Europe – the reception is amazing. In Africa we’re also picking up that as well.

“The fact that we’re not doing promotional concerts – that has slowed us. For example, I was organising a listeners party there in Nairobi, which had to be cancelled, and there are many performances like that. So things like that. But in general, the reception is amazing,” he says.

“There are many things I am working on but literally for me, in my mind, I think about myself as East African. Mswahili. As terrible as my Kiswahili is!” he says.

“So wherever I go, I want to be able to identify myself as East African. Most of the projects that I’m working on are from that perspective and I can’t wait. I’ve made many friends here that can’t wait for me to tour with them in East Africa. So in terms of future plans there is a lot of stuff coming that I am excited about.”

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