Saturday,November 28,2020 19:57 PM

What is the sex of music instruments?

By Reagan Ssempijja

Added 26th September 2020 03:01 PM

Instrumentalists are taking centre stage in the music industry. However, noteworthy is that most of the instruments are played by men. Are such instruments a challenge to women or they are just not interested?

What is the sex of music instruments?

Maureen Rutabingwa, also known as MoRoots, plays a number of instruments, including the saxophone. Photo by Reagan Ssempijja

Instrumentalists are taking centre stage in the music industry. However, noteworthy is that most of the instruments are played by men. Are such instruments a challenge to women or they are just not interested?


In the days gone by, instrumentalists were usually in the background, backing up the main acts — the vocalists.

Over the last decade or so, however, instrumentalists have been cast in the limelight, sometimes even headlining performances. Instrumentalists such as saxophonists, guitarists, violinists and pianists are holding solo physical and virtual concerts that their fans throng. 

The evolution has also unravelled a unique trend with an array of instruments, for instance the saxophone, guitar, xylophone and drums, appearing to be masculine.

That is, it seems mainly men play these instruments, with women being restricted to singing.

Strapping saxophone

For many Ugandans, at the mention of the saxophone, instrumentalists that come to mind include Isaiah Katumwa, Joseph Sax, Michael Kitanda, Happy Kyazze and Brian Mugenyi.

Although legends such as Moses Matovu and Saidi Kasule from the Afrigo Band started playing the saxophone much earlier, it is safe to say Katumwa popularised the instrument with his regular Jazz with Isaiah Katumwa concerts.

Thus far, the discourse has not mentioned any female names playing the instrument.

Is the instrument out of bounds for female musicians? Katumwa disagrees. But is quick to add that male domination seems to stem from the role models of the instrument in the country.

Having been exposed to performances by Moses Matovu, Katumwa says there were no female saxophonists at that time in the limelight to inspire others.

The music industry could have had more female saxophonists, if there were trailblazers of the same sex, Katumwa argues.

It requires a lot of energy to play the saxophone, thus the presumption that it would be arduous for women.

However, Matovu disagrees with this notion, saying there are a number of women playing the saxophone, only that they are not doing it professionally or commercially.

"The challenge with women in the industry, save for a few, is that they do not usually get out of their comfort zones. In music, other than having a talent, one must be aggressive.

"If only female instrumentalists could be a little more aggressive, Ugandans would get to know that they are equally good or even better than the men in some cases," Matovu says.

For Happy Kyazze, one of the new kids on the saxophone block, one of the reasons keeping women and the saxophone apart is the fact that the instrument has a number of buttons.

He says some women find this unnerving. 

"The other hindrance is the impact on the face as one plays the sax. Because of the energy used when blowing the sax, the facial expressions are not pleasant, something that many women are uncomfortable with," Kyazze asserts.

Nevertheless, he is quick to add that the instrument can be played by anyone.

He says as long as one grasps a few techniques, they are good to go, regardless of sex. 

"I am training three women to play the saxophone. Their passion is what is pushing them, and that is all they need to be celebrated saxophonists."

Any female saxophonists?

So, is it all lost for women? Certainly not. The instrument has got a lifeline among women with Maureen Rutabingwa, who goes by the stage name MoRoots, at the forefront.

She is arguably Uganda's most accomplished female saxophonist.

In 2011, while attending a Qwela Band concert, MoRoots, intently listened and fell in love with the band's instruments, particularly the sax. 

She eventually became the only female saxophonist in the band until 2013 when she quit. 

On why she chose the sax despite most players being male, MoRoots says it has nothing to do with sex.

"It is about power, dynamism and resilience, which speaks so much to me as an artiste. Every time I pick up my sax up and play, it is a representation of our resilience, power and wonderful talents as artistes," MoRoots says.

However, the status quo will remain if parents do not support their daughters who show interest in various music instruments, not only the saxophone, at an early age, MoRoots says.

Apart from the sax, she also plays the piano and has showcased her talent on both local and international stages. 

"Women add colour, variety in talent to the music scene. 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. Our visibility, as women, is important," MoRoots said during an interview with an international news site.

Uganda's other female saxophonist is Stella Tushabe, who has since become Rwanda's first female saxophonist after settling there.

In an interview with a Rwandan news site, Tushabe intimated about why she chose the saxophone.

"Music chose me. My friend says you do not choose an instrument, but the instrument chooses you. I think she is right, this is the story of how a car ride, a ringtone and the saxophone introduced me to the instrument.

In 2013, my friends and I were heading for a retreat. My friend's phone rang and the ringtone had a saxophone intro, it was beautiful. Every time it rang, I would just close my eyes. I didn't know what instrument that was, so I asked her and she said it was a saxophone," Tushabe recalls.

She asked if her friend thought she could learn how to play it and her friend said it was a no brainer.

"I could play if I gave it my all. Now all I had to do was find a saxophone in Rwanda, which would turn out to be next to impossible because it was almost unheard of," she adds.

Other ‘male-dominated' instruments

The African long drum is another music instrument that is largely masculine.

Think about a long drum and how it is played, positioned in between the legs of the drummer, and then think about a woman playing it.

Odd, right? Well, yes, for many female instrumentalists. It is unlikely that you will find a woman playing the engalabi (long drum), especially in Buganda kingdom.

More to this, the history and original making of this drum further indicates why it is a ‘male-dominated' instrument.

According to Face Music, an online traditional music site, the engalabi is also regarded as Engoma Ensajj a (male drum).

This traditional drum has a head made of a reptile's hide and is attached to a wooden resonant cavity (a slim lower part), an allusion to the male phallus, something that proves why it should be played by men.

Herman Ssewanyana, a seasoned percussionist with Afrigo Band, says even if it were culturally viable for a woman to play a long drum, it would be extremely hard for them because of the energy required to bring sound out of the drum.

"Besides, women naturally have softer hands compared to men. This would make it hard for them to swiftly and energetically hit the drum," Ssewanyana says.

The barriers are somewhat similar with the other forms of drums in as far as women playing them is concerned.

What female artistes say

Violet Kasemire, guitarist

As a woman, I do not see any barrier stopping me from playing any music instrument.

I play a guitar, trumpet and violin so effortlessly, and I think that is how other passionate female instrumentalists should be.

Lydia Sax, saxophonist

I am currently a student of the Jazz, being taught by Happy Kyazze. I must say there is that pressure of entering a male dominated venture.

Related articles

More From The Author

More From The Author