Msafiri caught up with Ugandan Village Boy turned International Jazz Sensation, Isaiah Katumwa, in his recording studios in Los Angeles
Katumwa released his 10th highly acclaimed album earlier this year, entitled This is Me, and he’s currently back in the studios again recording his next soundtrack. An accomplished, self-taught saxophonist, Isaiah is credited with putting jazz on the East African map, and putting East African jazz on the world map.
His story is of a young man who grew up in rural Uganda in a single parent family of limited economic means. His hit album Sinza catapulted him to international acclaim in 2006. Since then he has played for over 20 presidents. He has shared the stage with greats like Jonathan Butler, Hugh Masekela, Manu Dibango, Erykah Badu, Jimmy Dludlu, Miriam Makeba, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Oliver Mtukudzi, Phil Driscoll, Alvin Slaughter and Kirk Whalum.
Q How did you get started as a jazz musician?
My story begins as one of the sons of a single mother. She worked as a farm labourer to care for us. By the time I was 10 years old, there was no money to pay for school fees. I had to work to pay my way through school. At school, I excelled at academics, and music. I was gifted in every area: traditional folk music, dancing, instruments, singing, I did it! I formed a brass band, played the trumpet, the guitar and the trombone. One day my guardian showed me a saxophone. I had never seen one in my life. There was nobody to teach me, so I taught myself how to play it.
Q Why did you choose jazz?
Jazz is inherently about improvisation and it incorporates melodies, rhythms and beats. The history of jazz also speaks to me – African slaves went into America with traditional drums and rhythms. European immigrants in the US had the classical interpretation of music, using violins, trumpets and the like. A marriage of these two resulted – that syncopation and beats of African music blended with Western instruments gave birth to a half-caste baby – jazz. It has travelled in time through different cultures but it maintains its principles of expression. Jazz is an international language, just like English, a language we speak with different accents throughout the world.
Q Tell us about your latest album.
It is my tenth album, in my signature style of African smooth jazz. As the title suggests, I have always tried to be myself and to be true to my authentic sound. My music is upbeat because I believe African people are lively, dancing people. We do not just listen. As a people, we love rhythm and we love beats. When I am performing, I am being myself because I love rhythm and dancing.
We appreciate popular musicians from the world at large but we cannot be them. We have our own authentic voice. As musicians, we need to understand our purpose – if you are doing it for money, you will not understand. If you are doing it for love, for a legacy, that is different. This album is a reflection of the fire burning within me, the desire to contribute on a global scale to our authentic East African sound.
Q How did you balance school, work and music?
My struggles affected my academics. When I did my A levels, I was playing music as a bandleader. I was also the school head boy. I had to be at school from 7:30am then had to work from 5:30pm to 2am every day for two years. I was doing physics, economics, maths and A level art. It was a taxing period but failure was not an option so I succeeded.
Q How did you survive?
The love of my mother kept me going. Parents need to understand love is so powerful. You don’t need to spend a lot of money or say much… my mother loved me. The relationship I had with God and the pain I had seen my mother go through meant I had to succeed. When I completed my A levels my headmaster begged me to stop doing music. I was always top in maths and physics, so they expected me to go into engineering. In Uganda back then, music was not a respectable career and there were no role models. My older brother also felt I should have done engineering. Still, I chose music. My mom trusted me. My mother said, “If God is going to bless you through your gift of music then do it.”
Q Do you ever experience fear of failure?
That is my main weakness – something I battle daily. That is why every musician needs support, needs fans. Everyone sees you as a star but they don’t know what you’re battling inside. It is scary. Sometimes I am received majestically. Other times I am rejected. People ask “what is your name”… It is okay, but you have to think OK, they don’t know me so I have to prove that they should know me. Just before a performance, I get stage fright. I let myself feel the nerves – I don’t take anything to influence me. After a minute or two the nerves go. I enjoy the feeling of winning that battle.
Q Describe your typical daily routine.
I love my baby – my three-year-old son Israel. When I am at home, I spend my mornings with him. Afterwards, I do my daily radio show. I do two shows per day – one for the Ugandan station Jazz FM, pre-recorded, and the other one is in Cape Town, South Africa. Then I work on my TV show Jazz with Isaiah. You can listen on jazzfm.co.ug or alljazzradio.co.za. Then I do music lessons with my teenage son Mitchell – three times a week for an hour. He is an extremely talented musician and the best composer and songwriter I know. After exercising at the gym, I practise for three to five hours a day.
Q How has fatherhood changed you?
Growing up without a father, there is a lot I missed. I said my son would have it all. My philosophy is to let your kids be free, let them express themselves. It has worked in my life. We have a good relationship and my 13 year old understands many things. He knows I don’t expect him to be a jazz musician. Nevertheless, I encourage him to play all the music that is within him. Since becoming a dad, I have become a better teacher. I am very patient with him, we laugh often. I involve my son in everything I do, and I travel with him. It has made me a better mentor.
Q You often travel to different schools and colleges to mentor youths. How do you encourage them?
I began my charity called the Talanta Mentorship Programme in 2013. I faced many challenges as a young man – I underwent rejection and had no support. I determined that if I ever became able to support someone I would do that. I don’t think there is a point at which you cannot help somebody. In addition to charity work, I visit schools and universities to encourage young people. I share my story of how I did not have my father support me. I faced many limitations but if I made it, there is no excuse. I perform for them, have fun but I also talk with them.
Q What are your happiest childhood memories?
My mother’s visits to school. She came once a year. She lived in the village. I remember she always came with katogo – green bananas cooked together with groundnut sauce. It was inexpensive but that is the best she could bring for me. It was special because even now it is so valuable in my childhood memories. Since she is not around to make this dish for me, I just don’t eat it any more.
Q Your name means?
Katumwa means ‘the one who has been sent.’ It is the same in several Bantu languages in Africa. Isaiah was a prophet who was sent. I don’t believe your name dictates who you will become but I think the meaning of my name is a good and perfect coincidence.
Q Can you name three books that changed your life?
The first is the Bible, obviously. The second is the autobiography of Richard Branson. His story is amazing and it really touched me. The other man is the late Dr Myles Munroe. His book is about the fantastic balance between success in the real world and the walk with God – the process and struggle in both of these areas.
Highlights of 2016
• Releasing my album This is Me.
• Exciting collaborations with Grammy award winning artists I have admired for years – Kirk Whalum and Darren Rahn.
• Being number 1 and remaining on the Top 10 indie artists charts in California for 4 weeks continuously in June.