Tushabe and the saxophone: A game changer in the music industry

A group of musicians, poets and dancers staged an outstanding performance at the recent celebrations of Liberation Day held at Amahoro Stadium. Among the performers, was Stella Tushabe, an exceptional saxophonist, whose skill defined and set the tune for the performance.

The mix of her mellow and dynamic sound blended well with the poetic rhythm. It was a mesh and it was beautiful.

Tushabe is one of the few saxophone players in the country, and her performances so far have proven that music is more than just vocals.

She treats her saxophone the same way you would a puppy or kitten. It is this connection with her instrument that does the magic, she reveals.

Stella Tushabe is the only female saxophone player in the country. Courtesy photos

“I love that my audience can relate to my music and that they love it when I perform. I honestly think it has a lot to do with the relationship I have with my sax,” she says.

She also believes that for people to feel the performance, it has a lot to do with ‘the artiste feeling what they are performing’, for everything comes from within.

Playing the sax is therapeutic for Tushabe. 

And when she plays, she wants her audience to relate to her. This is why during her gigs; she interacts with her audience during breaks.

“I love relating to the people I am performing for, I want them to love what I am playing and for them to easily approach me. What I do goes well with my interpersonal relations and its very important for people to feel free with me. I ask them for ideas about the songs they want me to play and I love that so far, hopefully it will keep going,” Tushabe says.

Insecure start

Tushabe is a sensual and buoyant performer; however, this was not the case at the start.

For a long time, she was content playing the sax in her room, too scared to step out.

The saxophonist during the interview at The New Times offices. Photo by Craish Bahizi

Her first public performance was at a friend’s wedding in 2015.

“I was nervous, I wondered if people were going to love it and those were days I wasn’t very acquainted with the saxophone as an instrument, so I was worried about so many things and I wished I could just hide under a table and play it from there,” she recalls.

Her journey as a saxophonist has had challenges, but also, since evolved.

Tushabe during the Liberation Day celebrations at Amahoro Stadium on July 4./ Courtesy

“This industry is tiresome, I didn’t know this. It gives a lot of pressure, this is why it requires you to have your act together.”

For the first few years, playing the sax was something she did once in a while. “I wouldn’t say I had a clear vision for this, but starting last year when I played at Hotel Villa Portofino, I decided I wanted to be intentional with this.”

And since then, she has involved herself more with performing at events. She has been able to perform at different events, such as Jazz Junction, Transform Africa, and this year’s Liberation Day, among others.

She admits that public performances never get any easier, however, she says she is overcoming this fear by accepting that belief in oneself is the best way to go.

“I believe when setting out to perform, the first thing is to have confidence in yourself that you will do it because you have worked so hard towards it. You just get brave and walk out there and pull off your best,” Tushabe says.

A sax is therapy

The saxophone is music and poetry combined. It embeds countless musical notes that convey different feels.

Tushabe says her best time with the instrument is when she learns how to play a new tune and it sounds good.

But it’s also some sort of therapy for me when things are not going so well in my personal life, when I start playing I feel much better, she says.

“Sometimes it’s a form of expression. When you’re unhappy you find yourself playing inspirational songs, or smooth songs that speak to your soul. When I am happy that’s when I feel like playing latest music, I get my favourite Rwandan songs and re-do them. The end bit of it is that the sax is therapeutic for me.”

On refining her skill

Tushabe says that being a great saxophonist takes practice, lots of sacrifices, resilience, self-motivation and of course, passion.

She has, hence, taken time off from regular performances to have enough time to learn new things and improve her quality of music.

She is working to reinvent herself, do better and come up with something different.

For her, playing a saxophone is more of a calling, hence, something she is planning to make a career out of.

“Coming from a background of faith and belief in God, I know God just doesn’t place you somewhere to play with something, I realised it could be something that God wants me to use to bless other people and to come up with these projects that will help other people.”

Because of her love for kids, she hopes to focus on helping them by assisting them to learn how to express themselves and learn how to grow their talents.

Ignoring naysayers

Tushabe recollects a moment that almost pushed her to give up on her dream. It was a few weeks towards her performance at Jazz Junction when a certain musician approached her, telling her that she wasn’t good enough, hence, undeserving to be on the posters and that she was going to fail.

“I felt bad, I almost pulled out but I didn’t want to ruin my reputation. I decided to focus on the ultimate goal because I have had so many comments and I wasn’t going to let this one break me, that’s the only reason I continued, she narrates.

“It’s very easy for you to be discouraged and thrown off track, especially with women, because first of all you don’t have so many people to look up to, you wonder if you are doing it all wrong and if it’s worth it. The comments are many but I think we just need to perfect the art of ignoring naysayers and keep going,” she adds.

With the passion she holds for her skill, Tushabe believes she will do more to perfect the art and impact as many people as she can.

She says she looks up to Isaiah Katumwa because of his tune that speaks to her heart, and his humble nature that inspires her to be more.

What other people say about her

Herbert Rock, Tushabe’s trainer, refers to her as a go-getter and one who always sticks to accomplish a given assignment.

“Stella has successfully mastered the art and has a promising talent. She is an ambitious quick learner.  Despite the fact that she had limited time, she would endeavour to accomplish her assignments. I am proud that she is now performing at bigger events,” he says.

Jackie Lumbasi, a radio personality and Tushabe’s biggest fan, calls her a game changer in the music industry.

“Besides being the only female saxophone player we have in Rwanda, she is a great player. She gets better at it with each day and each performance. I know she is dedicated and will make whatever sacrifice to put up a good show, “Lumbasi says.

She adds, “This is a game changer. Having a lady play the saxophone means that instrument will impact the world more than it has in the hands of men. It’s a bold move and it means Stella is not your average woman, she’s brought the walls down and nothing is going to stop her.”