A 19-year-old lady stood on stage at Rangers Restaurant in Nairobi and sang a jazz rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’.
No one at the time, least of all herself, knew that the less than three-minute performance would set the trajectory for the rest of her life. Then, she was known as Rita Khatushi.
As part of the pioneer staff at Rangers Restaurant on Nairobi’s Langata Road, Ms Khatushi was on an upward trajectory, having joined as a hostess and quickly rising through the ranks.
On an especially busy night on December 31, 2000, on a whim, she asked an older man, Patrick Sana of the Sana Jazz Band if she could join his ensemble on stage. That was her first ever performance in front of people who were not her family.
“The applause had a high to it. There is nothing that can give you that kind of high,” she says.
When she got off stage, to add to the euphoric feeling, Mr Sana put the icing on the cake.
“He said to me in amazement, ‘young girl you are in the wrong career.’”
The crowd then counted down the seconds to the New Year and Ms Khatushi would leave that night with a heavy load on her shoulders, one she carried for the next four months.
On her bedside table was a business card Mr Sana had handed her that night on New Year’s Eve which she would often look at with ‘what if’ on her mind. She handed in her resignation on Fools’ Day of 2001.
Everyone thought she was playing a prank on them. She dialed Mr Sana who was overjoyed to hear from her.
“If I didn’t do it [resign], I would regret it for the rest of my life,” she smiles at the memory all these years later.
Sitting at Samaki Samaki in Lavington, Ms Khatushi, now Asta Ina, reminisces on this as one of the best decisions she ever made in her life.
The fast-paced life of the music industry soon followed and she was up front for the Sana Jazz Band who played Saturdays at the Thorn Tree at New Stanley.
Mr Sana and his sons welcomed her with open arms. They gave her a black cassette tape and asked that she learn one or two songs for their upcoming show. She did not need to memorise any of the songs. It was Natalie Cole. She knew all the songs on the A and B sides of the record.
Remembering her first payment, “Mzee Sana gave me a Sh200 note and I was so excited. You mean I can get paid doing something that comes to me so easily?”
Now, she says, that music does pay but requires a high sense of self-discipline since in a musician’s world payment does not come at month's end.
“I’ve seen very talented musicians waste their lives in this business. Character trumps talent any day,” she says.
She thinks herself an old soul, having grown up with a music enthusiast for a father.
“My father was a music encyclopedia and knew so much about music. He introduced me to jazz at age of seven and at any time, Peggy Lee, Shirley Bassey, or Billy Holiday would be playing in our house.”
She also credits her grandfather who played saxophone, as well as her very musical mother as the sources of her obvious talent.
On a warm Sunday afternoon, I met her at Samaki Samaki. Her first number is ‘I Love You for Sentimental Reasons’, first sung by Nat King Cole and later by her idol Natalie Cole.
Her powerful jazz voice is more than apparent and adorned with pink very high-heeled shoes, she adds verve to the song with a dance both Coles would be proud of. From the start, the voice was already there. She wanted to, on top of building her musical repertoire, “work on stage presence, confidence, showmanship.”
The training must have paid off because she glides across the small stage with a second-nature kind of ease.
“Jazz has modernised and localised and its acceptance especially on the Kenyan scene has grown,” she says.
Hers is a vintage band but they have had to adjust with the times, mixing genres because of ‘the crowd’s musical palate.’
Her paths kept opening and more gigs followed. Someone from the Hilton’s Jockey Club who had seen her set (and would later recommend her for a job in Dubai) invited her to play with them.
In December of 2001, she found herself in Mombasa where she worked and sang at the Bora Bistro for what had initially been envisaged as a two-week stint. She stayed at Bora for six months before being poached by crooner Tony Remedios to join his troupe and ended up staying in Mombasa for another two years.
A short ride in the bistros of Berlin followed shortly after. She was at home in the streets of the German capital having studied German back home.
Ms Khatushi had a falling out with her old band, Sana Jazz Band sometime in 2005 and as she was crying her heart out, an old acquaintance called about a job in Dubai. She was on the first flight there.
Walter Lindner, the musically-inclined ponytailed then-German ambassador took a liking to her jazzy voice and introduced her to the diplomatic community, ties she holds to this day.
“He keeps in touch with me. He even wished me a happy birthday recently,” Asta Ina says of Lindner. He would join them onstage every time they played. She took a stab and formed her band, Mystic Fusion and with a lot of time going into rehearsals, they would bring the house down everywhere they went.
Another nasty break-up followed and Ms Khatushi parted ways, painfully, with the rest of the Mystic Fusion crew. She quit music for three years and did not even want to listen to anything playing on the radio.
As fate would have it, one of Mr Sana’s sons who was based in South Africa came back home and tracked her down to play a gig and would not take no for an answer.
“Once we played, the bug bit me again. And I was back in,” she recalls of the call back to her calling.
In 2018, Ms Khatushi became Asta Ina, a Greek name for divine strength.
“Abram had to become Abraham to become the father of the nation. And in the same way, your name is tied to your destiny so from then, I became Asta Ina,” she explains.
With a new name, she formed The Rouge Band. Of the band’s name, “You can’t ignore red,” she laughs.
Being a female band leader, Asta Ina confesses that it’s not always easy in a male-dominated field but, “I’ve had to grow a thick skin and yes indeed there are many stereotypes placed on me in this industry just because of my gender!”
Work is plenty for the tenacious and she is. Asta Ina and The Rouge Band will rack up close to 10 club gigs a month as well as half that number on the corporate scene.
“During the festive season, these numbers are higher,” she says.
Payment is also ‘relative’ and hers has been a long journey to get there, branding, packaging and networking as she goes along.
“What I can attest to is many of us live solely off music. We have families, drive cars, pay rent, take children to school and live in the suburbs,” says Asta Ina, who is in the final stages of ‘dropping’ an album.