Herbert Rock: Kigali's first professional saxophonist

For this interview, I met the soft-spoken sax maestro at the Repub Lounge in Kimihurura. It had to be a quick interview because shortly after he would be rushing off to the Kigali Serena Hotel, where he would be shooting the video for Agasaza, the third track off his new saxophone-themed album – Sax in the City.
Herbert Rock, saxophonist and composer. (Moses Opobo.)
Herbert Rock, saxophonist and composer. (Moses Opobo.)

For this interview, I met the soft-spoken sax maestro at the Repub Lounge in Kimihurura. It had to be a quick interview because shortly after he would be rushing off to the Kigali Serena Hotel, where he would be shooting the video for Agasaza, the third track off his new saxophone-themed album – Sax in the City.

Thereafter, he will embark on shooting a video clip for the title track, for which he is still engaging the authorities for choice of city locations. And the album is a logical conclusion to what many in the Kigali jazz music fraternity had seen coming.

 
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It all started a few months ago, when news started filtering in that Rock, who had been the lead Saxophonist for the Neptunez Band was leaving to pursue a solo career. He had been with the band since its inception in 2014. And Sax in the City is basically his way of stamping his footprints on the still unique and virgin Kigali saxophone/jazz music scene. It’s his maiden album. “This album according to me is more of making people feel the Sax and that is why most of the songs are copies,” he explains: The album packs in nine tracks in all, but only two; Sax in the City and Rain in the Morning are his own.

 

The rest of the songs are Saxophone covers of popular songs from Rwanda and the region. Agasaza and Nyaruguru are original Rwandese folk songs that were included on the album “to celebrate the rich Rwandese culture and heritage”, Rock explains. Then there is Ndagukunda and Yantumye by King James, and Indoro by Charly and Nina which were basically thrown in there to introduce a new dimension to the already popular songs.

 

The write-up on the CD cover is short and light, and gives a hint about the musician’s intentions; “It is often said of music that it is food for the soul and Sax in the City was made to quench a hunger that was existing in my city of residence at the time.

As the first professional saxophonist in Kigali, Sax in the city was written during a period of transition from the Neptunez Band to pursue a solo career and was heavily inspired by the rich culture and traditions of the City of Kigali.” While Agatako and Valu Valu by Jose Chameleone seem like additions on the album that speaks of our integration under the East African community. “Rain in the morning was written one morning when the rain interrupted my rehearsal schedule making it impossible for me to keep to it.” “Yes I can do my own stuff, but I think that if I do a popular song like Indoro or Valu Valu in a Sax version it serves as an introduction for me, and thereafter I can bring in my own songs. Of course before doing a song I talk to the owner to get their permission.”

For its recording and mixing, the album makes use of the skilled hands of three local audio producers; Kikene Mastola (Sax in the City, Agasaza, Yantumye, Valu Valu and Nyaruguru). Producer Iyoz recorded all the tracks, while producer Piano recorded and mixed Rain in the Morning. The title track features vocals by Luzinda Brian, Zawadi Moise on the bass guitar, Joshua Ssemugabi on the keyboards, while Limbali Katawo takes to the electric guitar. It was produced at the Nep Studios, owned by Neptunez Band Director Remmy Lubega, perhaps a testament to the smooth transition Rock made from band to solo musician.

On Thursday night I actually bumped into Rock at the weekly Neptunez Band jam session at KGL Bar and Fastfood, giving out a few promotional CDs and checking his former band mates out. “I have been with Neptunez Band since it started. I’m the one who actually scouted around for musicians,” he explains his allegiance to the band that basically introduced him to the Rwandan market.” “I was planning on launching a solo career in Uganda but Remmy convinced me to try this side. So I’ve been waiting for this for long time. All the time I was in Neptunez I was always thinking of it. At the beginning it was a hustle. There were no gigs. Before my decision to leave Neptunez I had to first make sure they have people that can take charge.”

Unique musical instrument Rock first fell in love with his favorite musical instrument while watching TV as a young boy. “There was this gospel choir with a saxophonist who had all his fingers on a button and immediately I decided that I wanted to learn the instrument.” “We didn’t have the Saxophone at school. We had trumpets and trombones.

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A trumpet has three buttons, but with a saxophone every figure has a button. So it was a struggle learning it at the beginning.” To learn the instrument he contacted a friend who introduced him to the Police Band in Uganda from where he got lessons. “The first time I got hold of a Saxophone I was like wow! The tone is so nice and you can play a whole range of voices on a saxophone. Base, soprano, alto, tenor, and since the buttons are many I enjoyed it from the first time.”

To date, he has three saxophones to work with – one for alto, for base, and another for tenor. Asked what constitutes the saxophone’s uniqueness he explains; “In wind instruments the saxophone is a big family because there is alto, C-sax, soprano, tenor sax, Baritone, base, sub base, and so on.” And how easy is it to learn to play the instrument? “Every instrument is complicated but as long as you give it time you can learn it,” he assures,” before concluding; “Since I’ve been around I’d never seen another saxophone player.

I was the only one in town and that’s why I decided to do a sax album. I want people to know that there’s a saxophone in the city now. I’ve been working with bands from childhood. I started working with bands when I was still in school – in Kampala, Dar es Salaam, and Nairobi.

I think now is the time to focus on my own stuff.” Presently Rock has a few gigs to keep his hands occupied. At the Repub Lounge in Kimihurura where we met for this interview, he plays every Thursdays and Saturdays from 8:00-10:00 pm, while on Friday he does a lunchtime slot for diners between 1:00- 3:00 pm.

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That is of course besides the private gigs he gets to play at, mostly social events like weddings and corporate dos.

He will be launching Sax in the City on October 28th at the monthly Kigali Kigali Jazz Junction at the Kigali Serena Hotel in an event that will be headlined by Uganda’s premier Saxophonist Isaiah Katumwa. “I will be launching my album and Isaiah will come as a guest.

I will play two saxophones concurrently and I think that is something that Kigalians must watch out for. Besides I’ve never seen two saxophone players sharing a stage here in Rwanda, so this will be a first.”

He is already recording a second album and this time it will feature more of his own compositions.

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