Brace your ears, America – one of Africa’s most acclaimed and innovative jazz artists is gearing up to unleash his tasty and inspiring vibe stateside. Renowned throughout his home continent for an infectious hybrid style he calls “African, smooth and divine,” saxophonist Isaiah Katumwa – affectionately dubbed Uganda’s “father of jazz,” - is currently in the studio working on his U.S album debut with Darren Rahn, who as a producer and artist has scored over 25 #1 radio singles and multiple Grammy nominations working with genre greats like Nick Colionne, Julian Vaughn, Jonathan Fritzen, Dave Koz, Paul Brown, Eric Darius and Najee.
Rahn previously mixed the track “Pamojja” from This Is Me, Isaiah’s 2016 album that he recorded in Uganda. Though not heavily promoted in the U.S., it received widespread international radio airplay and was #1 for four weeks on California’s Smooth 97 The Oasis, aka “The Smooth Jazz Place,” based in Palm Springs.
While Isaiah’s goal with the collection is to share his unique approach of interpreting smooth jazz from a sonically and rhythmically dynamic African perspective, the lead single “Home Away” is in the pocket smooth jazz all the way. Produced by and co-written with Rahn, the track is a powerful showcase for Isaiah’s lush, expressive soprano voice, with a cool and silky flow and soaring, horn textured hook. The song title refers to the saxophonist’s drive to find a niche creating commercial instrumental music in America while staying true to his roots, which include numerous gospel flavored recordings in the early 2000s and later, starting with 2006’s Sinza, incorporating more African flavors into contemporary jazz.
“I want people listening to my music for the first time to feel at home, musically speaking, as I introduce a different sound from what I have recorded previously in Africa,” says Isaiah, whose artistry has been influenced by African musical legends Hugh Masekela, Manu Dibango and Jonathan Butler as well as Dave Koz and Kirk Whalum. “Collaborating with Darren helps me find that perfect stylistic bridge, to introduce myself in a language that they can easily understand before I share something very different with them. I wanted to feel at home in the smooth jazz saxophone style that has had such a powerful impact on my music. Some tracks on the album will be very mainstream, and others will have that element of authenticity reflecting my African heritage.”
In an interview with BBC Newsday in June 2017, six months before he died, Masekela said, “Isaiah is the kind of breed that I was raised around who goes out there and hustles for the music to grow. Looks for musicians, works on the music, teaches people…if we had more musicians like that, music in Africa would change.” In addition to creating opportunities to play throughout the African continent (Zambia, Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Ghana) and Europe (Germany, France, UK, Netherlands), Isaiah’s musical success has led to many opportunities to create impactful cultural events and a non-profit educational organization.
Often credited with turning many people in Uganda into jazz enthusiasts, Isaiah is the founder of one of his country’s largest annual jazz festivals, bringing 1,500 fans to Kampala City from across East Africa every April since 2007 to hear legends (Masekela, Dibango) and local musicians alike. The most recent 2019 event featured three time Grammy award winning Angelique Kidjo and multi Grammy nominated saxophonist and producer Darren Rahn. The saxophonist also hosts a television show called “Jazz with Isaiah” on Urban TV (a popular Ugandan station) that he launched in 2011 with the objective of discovering, educating, encouraging and celebrating talent.
Isaiah is the founder of Beyond Music Foundation/Isaiah Katumwa Foundation, a non-profit that mentors, funds and inspires young people from Uganda using his music and personal story of triumphing over the odds. The organization has taken several less privileged young musicians through school, and plans are underway to provide musical instruments and make teaching programs more accessible. He and members of his band participate in the “Talanta Music Mentorship Program,” which he launched in February 2014 to expose school children to instruments and offer training.
Isaiah’s desire to give back in this way traces back to his impoverished childhood being raised not with his birth parents but by a guardian from the age of 10. His guardian worked for a small school, and sensing that young Isaiah had a gift for singing, gave him some traditional African instruments (including vibraphone and African drums) and a broken saxophone purchased from a military brass band. Paying his own school tuition, the completely self-taught Isaiah also played trumpet for several years before securing his first gig as a saxophonist in his later teens.
“My story of growing up poor, having to pay my own tuition while trying to make life happen for myself is a fairly common one in Africa,” Isaiah says. “That’s the reason I want to inspire kids. Money from foreign countries helps, but my opinion is that African children don’t need money as much as they need inspiration from the people that live among them who have become successful. I use my story to motivate them, reminding them that I didn’t have many of the opportunities they now have, so if I can succeed, what is their excuse to not pursue their dreams?”
Isaiah’s goals in breaking into the American contemporary jazz market are grounded in his desire for genuine cultural exchange. “I’m really excited about the opportunity to do my small part in localizing the globe, so to speak,” he says. “I often bring in artists from America to play in Uganda, which is a great way to embrace cultural diversity. In turn, with my first official U.S. released project, I want to contribute on behalf of my home country flavors of the music I have grown up with and love to perform.
“I am a person of faith who believes we should all live our lives with purpose, and that is the reason I am so passionate about my music,” Isaiah adds. “I want it to be a positive influence not just in Africa but everywhere. Music also allows me to experience one of my other great passions, which is traveling, being exposed to different cultures, ways of life, attitudes and mentalities. Music is how I express myself and it allows me to understand how others see the world.”