Rutabingwa flying high with her music

Friday July 29 2016

Maureen Rutabingwa performing at the Blankets and Wine festival on July 13, in Kampala. PHOTO | COURTESY

East Africa has a number of female musicians with larger than life profiles Juliana Kanyomozi, Muthoni the Drummer Queen and Lady Jaydee — and they all occupy their musical space.

Now Uganda’s female saxophonist Maureen Rutabingwa, who goes by the stage name of MoRoots, stands right up there with them.

Rutabingwa, an accomplished saxophonist, pianist and singer, speaks of the saxophone as a beautiful instrument.

“It’s about power, dynamism and resilience, which speaks so much to me. Every time I pick my sax up and play, it’s a representation of all of our resilience, power and wonderful talents,” she said.

She was the only female sax player for Uganda’s Qwela Band in 2012 and still performs with the band even after co-founding the Soul Deep band in 2013 as a lead vocalist. Recently she performed at the 13th edition of Blankets and Wine held at the Uganda National Museum Grounds in Kampala on July 10.

Her love for music started while singing in the Hillcrest Preparatory School choir in Nairobi at the age of six. She said, “It was the starting point. My parents provided the environment necessary for my talent to grow and thrive. My mother drove me to piano lessons and attended all the recitals and school performances I had. It made me.”


She started her music journey with classical piano lessons and played the recorder in the school orchestra before transitioning to the sax when her music teacher introduced her to the instrument at the age of 12.

“I’m a sax-lesson drop out. I took lessons for about two years but it was classical saxophone, which I didn’t enjoy very much. So I took a break altogether from playing the saxophone and picked it up later when I went to university.

“I guess my music teacher back then knew I could handle it,” she added.

Rutabingwa, who had been playing the piano since she was six, pursued piano lesson up to diploma level. She had music lessons throughout secondary school at Rainbow International School in Kampala from 2002-2008 until she left for the University of East Anglia in Norwich where she pursued a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Management (2008-2011).

On being referred to as Uganda’s top female saxophonist, Rutabingwa said, “It is daunting. And I feel undeserving and under a lot of pressure. But I take it humbly and try to be the best that I can be.”

She is however aware of the fact that there are very few female instrumentalists in Uganda.

“I think women add colour, spice and a lot of beautiful energy to the mix of bands. There are some great females on the live music scene, and I hope we will inspire more to come out of the shadows and pick up instruments as well. Our visibility is important,” she said. 

Rutabingwa is currently in the studio working on her first debut album, titled Hear Me. She has released three singles Muluyimba, Omuka (home), and Take It All Back, while mother two Had Me At Hello and Million Pieces are in the works.

According to fellow saxophonist Micheal Kitanda, “MoRoots is a smart and intelligent musician, and her focus and hard work makes her one of the best saxophonists in Kampala.

She’s got knowledge about the piano both classical and jazz and this has shaped her into the full musician that she is. Her vocals are very powerful and soulful at the same time, making her one of the best musicians in the country to date.”

Qwela Band leader Joe Kahirimbanyi who has played with Rurabingwa, said: “MoRoots is a very professional and highly disciplined with her music kills. She is one of those musicians who always practise and make sure their music comes out perfectly. She also has a natural knack for performance and is a very good team player.”

Despite being an accomplished musician, Rutabingwa has a day job as a brand manager with Uganda Breweries Ltd and spends her spare time either in the studio or at a live gig.  

She is quick to dismiss the view that jazz is elitist music.

“I think that idea is quite misinformed. If you look at the genesis of jazz as a music form, it was confined to the deepest underground spots in the early 1900s, within the poor, oppressed black community in New Orleans. In Africa, the great music revolutionaries used jazz to speak to the marginalised. Think Fela Kuti in Nigeria or even Afrigo Band here in Uganda.”

She lists Fela Kuti, John Legend, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Alicia Keys, as among the musicians who have most influenced her.