Two things about the Kigali Jazz Junction at the Kigali Serena Hotel on Friday night: This was a saxophone night, not singing night. It was all about jazz music and the saxophone –well at least for the night’s main act, the Ugandan jazz saxophonist Isaiah Katumwa.
Katumwa is easily the region’s finest sax maestro and, beyond that, is credited for popularizing the hitherto unpalatable genre in the mass music market in the East African region. He has also given rise to a new crop of sax players, inspired by his story and his exploits as a largely self-taught saxophonist.
It’s the reason the show packed in both Katumwa and Herbert Rock who, at the moment is Kigali’s premier saxophonist. In an earlier interview, Rock had intimated that Katumwa was one of the biggest influences in his musical journey.
While Katumwa came in as the guest performer to headline the show, Rock was launching his debut album, Sax in the City.
But more than a century after the genre developed out of the African American communities of New Orleans in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, jazz remains a mystery to many.
What is jazz, anyway? If you posed this question to 100 people, you’d probably get the same number of answers. To some, jazz equals to Miles Davis and Dave Koz and Kenny G, while to many others, jazz is simply music with only polyphonic instrumentation and no vocals.
Not even the jazz musicians themselves are likely to agree on a single definition. It’s the reason there’s an old musicians’ joke about jazz as something “sweeter than sex, but it only lasts longer”.
Commercialization and marketing have further added to the mystery, creating more than a dozen sub-genres to grapple with; Mainstream jazz, contemporary jazz, smooth jazz, alternative jazz, avant-garde jazz, fusion jazz, name it.
Katumwa has always prided himself in going past the categories placed on the genre. The three words he employs to describe his music are; African, smooth, and divine.
His music basically echoes his African-ness, his taste for smooth jazz, and his Christian beliefs, and this is the message that he carried with him to Kigali. This is who he is, musically speaking.
The saxophone rules
When was the last time you saw two established saxophonists share a stage in Kigali? In an earlier interview with Herbert Rock, he had posed the same question to me, before revealing that this was one of the reasons Katumwa would he headlining.
The Neptunez Band took the crowd through the early hours of the show, before the other acts that had travelled from Uganda took to the stage, beginning with Steven Kigozi aka Steve Keys. Soon, it was clear why he chose the name Keys – his mastery of the keyboard.
He worked the audience well, with urbane jokes and his soulful renditions of popular RnB classics.
Keys proved himself a ladies’ man, belting out dedications to “all those ladies that are loyal”, and “everybody that has an unfaithful partner” or “those whose relationship status is complicated.”
He literally set the ball rolling.
Remmy Lubega, the Neptunez Band director then emotionally introduced Herbert Rock, reminding the audience that he (Rock) was one of Isaiah Katumwa’s protégés.
He reminded them that after going all the way in Kibuye in the Western Province in search of a good saxophonist and in vain, he had met Rock and the rest was history.
Rock’s first major gig with the Neptunez Band was actually a saxophone-themed event dubbed Lovers’ Valentine in February 2014.
And he was generous with his stage, inviting and acknowledging almost every artiste that was involved in the making of Sax in the City. MoRoots, a Ugandan female saxophonist, keyboardist and vocalist was first to join Rock on stage, and the two not only did a saxo collaboration, MoRoots also displayed her skills on the keyboard.
Sax in the City, he explained, was just the entry point, the precursor to what he has in store.
No wonder it had just two of his original compositions out of a total nine songs – the title track, Sax in the City, and Rain in the Morning.
Otherwise, the album mostly packs in saxophone covers of popular Rwandan songs and others from across the region.
Rock gladly shared the limelight with some of the local musicians whose songs he covered – Charly and Nina joined him on stage for Indoro, while DJ Pius dusted off his hit Agatako, one of Herbert Rock’s favorite saxophone renditions on the album.
This was not the first time Katumwa was performing in Kigali, which seemed to be the general feeling out there.
In July, he was the main musical act at the annual all-white dinner party, Diner en Blanc.
He did not hit the stage with a ‘bang’ as is common with pop musicians. He just walked from the edge of the stage blowing away at his trumpet, and when he reached in the middle of it, took a seat and continued working his sax.
He was not in a hurry to enthrall the audience, or so it seemed. I eavesdropped on a few people actually asking to confirm if indeed it was him.
Before Katumwa latched onto the stage, all the instrumentalists had to vacate it. As he blew away into his sax, it was all but him and the unmanned instrumentalists on stage.
The message was clear, though unspoken; “This is a saxophone night, not a singing night.”
Again, how many times have you seen a solo performance by an instrumentalist in Kigali?
Katumwa took the packed Kigali Serena Ballroom through his colorful repertoire; Africa Arise and Shine, Yezu, Sinza, Coming Home, and African Smoothy, among others.
For some reason, he seemed genuinely overjoyed at the good crowd reception, and on more than two occasions he promised to return to Kigali soon with his full band.
He congratulated Herbert Rock for coming of age on his saxophone, explaining that this was his way of getting to the younger generation that is alo enthusiastic about jazz.
“Thank you for the support and for coming around. The fact that all of you people are here at midnight just to watch me makes a whole difference,” he said slightly past mid night.
“One of the things I believe about Africa is that we have rhythm in our bodies and just can’t help it but move wherever we can.”