|Article by Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Pictures by Morgan Mbabazi
Published March 8, 2008
Ugandan jazz musician, Isaiah Katumwa, has just held a concert in Kampala in preparation of the launch of his seventh 12-track album titled Home Coming.
Your childhood appears to have been so difficult to the extent that you almost had no permanent home and had to work to raise your school fees. Why was this so?
A child has no choice about the things that happen to him. I knew I had a father though my mother was helpless; I was not in a position to force them to get a solution to their problems. I ended up with a guardian I did not choose.
Did you know your father’s whereabouts?
I knew where my father was. I loved him and he said he loved me. I knew I had a step mother as well. I got to see my father when I was 18 and actually started visiting him, but then I was already independent because I had started working by the time I was 12 or 13 years old. I knew I was alone and had to work hard.
Do you talk with your father? Did you know why your father did what he did? Was it that he did not have money with which to pay your fees?
I take care of him and we are OK. It is fine with me. I never had any problem with my father. I would not say that I knew what was going on. My father was a professional and he was never lacked money. I just do not know what happened. In fact I had never talked about this story but I have realised that there are people who go through a similar situation that they think is unique. The reason why I talk about it is for people to know that though people may celebrate my life now, but my yesterday was not any better theirs. I knew there was a complication with my step mother. I always acknowledge the fact that I managed to sail through my misfortunes and made success out of them.
Can we say that you play gospel jazz?
I play music that represents three things: my Christian faith, African music, and smooth jazz. I fuse all these in one project. So some songs may have smooth jazz, some may have African influences and some may have gospel elements.
So far how many albums have you released in your career?
Six: We Will Worship You (2001), Saxo-Hymns (2002), With Three Kings (2003), Sax-Worship (2005), Celebrate Africa (2006) and Sinza (2006).
Comment on your just concluded “Coming Home” concert?
It was a very big success. We did not have major sponsors that are dominating the music industry in Uganda but we had one or two houses that did advertise the concert. Most sponsors will want mileage. What is interesting is that people filled up the venue while many others did not attend because there was no space. Everybody left saying that this was something different. I didn’t know that jazz can be this good. That the sax can be so engaging. What I learnt about the concert is that people need to be genuine with what is right rather than what the masses need or what they appreciate. So people left satisfied and they are sending emails asking, “When is the next concert?”
Any observations on the Ugandan jazz music scene and Africa in general?
Hugh Masekela of South Africa says “American” or “smooth jazz” are media labels by the western world who are dominating the industry and that Africa can only have its own labels when it owns the sector. What is your view on this?
The language of the world defines some of these things. If I am playing something I do not have to define what I am doing but someone will say, “That is jazz”. I will call it African jazz or smooth jazz. For me it’s a global language that I am trying to be consistent with. When I play my saxophone I am thinking about the smooth jazz players that have influenced the world. I am just getting their smooth jazz and interpreting it the Ugandan way or the African way.
Can you comment on the major challenges of the African music industry?
I think number one is knowledge. In Uganda we do not have professional institutions that do sound engineering, for example. We have the music, we have got the gifts, and we have got whatever we need. Our music is unique, we cannot deny that, but the problem is that we cannot package it in such a way that the American market will receive it well. We buy American products because they are well packaged and even imitate them “we can’t deny this fact. We abandon our own and copy what they give us. So you need to go to America to get enlightened so as to know how to package your music better. Secondly the copyright law has been a big challenge and still is. It is not very important here compared to the West where it is enforced and all the artists do is to concentrate on their work because they will reap from it. Here there is a lot of compromise; people will not enforce the law. Corruption is another problem. For your music to play on FM radio stations, to be talked about or appreciated in Uganda, you have to corrupt the system. So you end up with musicians becoming popular not just because they are good enough but because they have accepted the system of corruption. Local media houses appear to be supporting this system.”
The New Vision newspaper of Uganda has referred to you as Uganda’s Kenny G. Is this a fair comparison?
First of all Kenny G has been my influence. When I talk about the saxophone people think of Kenny G. I am not the first saxophonist in Uganda but people want something they identify with. The difference is that now I am doing what Kenny G does and interpreting it in my own way as an African, as an East African and as a Ugandan. I think what fascinates people and what they want about my music is brought home through my music. It is like teaching Kenny G Luganda or Kiswahili and he starts singing in these languages.
You have beaten the odds to succeed. What is your advice to the younger musicians?
I think sticking to originality and accepting process is paramount. Many people want to get up there but do not want to accept the process, because you need to learn from people who have done it before you, observe and listen to music and ask yourself, “Why does that music sound good?” You don’t just go in because so and so has done it and succeeded. I think up-and-coming musicians need to accept the responsibility of the process of getting there; you need to learn and find out what so and so went through to succeed and then emulate it without trying to use short cuts to success. You can be a celebrity in your small village of Kireka for example, but outside Kireka will you be a celebrity? With my music I go beyond Africa and think of a Chinese. Will he think of it as excellent and compare it with that of his fellow Chinese? We may say we want to sell our music beyond Uganda, but we need to think about the people who will buy it.
How do you compare recording in London and Kampala for example?
Professionalism is still the key in Europe where you will find home-based studios doing good work. Professional studios are expensive but they are worth it because the sound engineers are well equipped and talented including a host of other experts. I think the sound quality and the way you do things here is lacking in professionalism.
It seems the industry in Uganda no longer attracts “original” musicians?
I am telling the manual musicians not to just complain about or criticize their counterparts who use computers to make their music. The synthetic musicians are not using witchcraft but their music is popular, why? The people using the computer do not know any better. Until you play a guitar, make it sweet enough for the computer artist to think that he cannot achieve that good guitar arrangement from the computer and that he must come looking for you to play it on his song. I have had someone play the sax on the keyboard and sell the record. But until I play better than the sax on the keyboard I have no point complaining. Musicians have to do their work well. If a foreign musician came to Kampala, can he hire me to play drums for him, for example? If you can do this then you have a point. We need to step up our excellence, skills and take our music to another level in order to beat people who cannot play any musical instruments other than vocalising. Americans are facing a similar problem but their music is still good enough to sell around the world.
What are your plans?
We are still strategising on how to support the music industry, especially in assisting gifted instrumentalists who are nevertheless crying out that they can’t exploit their talent because there is cheap electronically-generated and driven music around. Maybe we will put up a record label to support unfortunate children as well. I have been studying sound engineering in preparation for this. We are also preparing to re-package our music for the international market.
Your website’s slogan is “Let’s Blow Away to the Place of the Most High God”. What does this mean?
That is the gospel man in me. Music goes to the deepest parts that no language can communicate, but you will feel me. Deep there is where God resides. God in you and deep in me.
Your website also reads, “One word, one faith, one Christ” why different results? I would like to challenge all African gifts to go another level of excellence. God certainly deserves more. What is the message here?