Carli Muñoz Talks Recording In Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria Hit, Shares 'Wangari Maathai'

Phil Alcabes
Carli Muñoz

Carli Muñoz, longtime keyboardist for The Beach Boys, is no stranger to using his talents in pop, rock and jazz. Performing with the likes of Etta James, George Benson, Wilson Pickett and more, the self-taught pianist and composer has taken his proclivity for these genres and directly translated it into his own releases. The result of this genre fusion is Follow Me, Muñoz's sixth studio album -- and most experimental release to date.

Follow Me is an album overflowing with unique sounds, mixing worldly elements and blending it with ethereal, transcendental melodies. Recorded in his native Puerto Rico, Muñoz did a portion of the album in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which helped to inject an unparalleled amount of soul into the project. Influenced by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, Muñoz decided to use her life's work of saving the environment as inspiration. Described as a "call to action," Muñoz hopes the album inspires listeners to be aware of their surroundings and their effect on the world that we inhabit.

Follow Me is set to release on Tuesday (Sept. 25), but lead single "Wangari Maathai" is premiering today on Billboard. Ahead of the album release, Muñoz tells Billboard about the inspiration behind the political and environmentally charged album, recording the music in the aftermath of the devastating hurricanes, and how the lingering conditions affected him and his music. 

Why did you choose “Wangari Maathai” as the lead single for the record?

The song “Wangari Maathai” has the most compelling message and it is also an explicit call to action. It was inspired by Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental work. Also, it is a catalyst for the perhaps more subtle songs on the album… see, a good half of the music on Follow Me is expressed without words and “Wangari Maathai” I believe, is a bridge that unifies it all bringing it into context. Wangari Maathai’s work with women and young girls to create social equity with something as simple as planting trees -- which helps restore the environment and counter the effects of deforestation -- was so inspiring. She showed us that one person truly can make a difference. I felt this was a powerful message to bring out into the world with this track.

Do you consider Wangari Maathai your muse, and why?

Yes, absolutely, it happened a late morning at a local breakfast fonda where I live in Miramar: I was there waiting for my breakfast and picked up the local newspaper where I first saw Wangari’s picture. It was at the top on a tiny column about her winning the Peace Nobel Price… this was in 2004. I had never heard about her before, but her story touched me -- I don’t know, somehow it affected me, maybe by seeing what one person alone is capable of doing… of course in the end she wasn’t alone but that’s because she extraordinarily inspired so many people! In addition to the remarkable impact she made on the environment, the idea that her movement improved the political and social structure of the region also impressed me very much. 

I was just finishing a jazz album called Maverick, dedicated to historical mavericks past and present, and right then I decided that she would be one of my ‘present’ mavericks. So I included her name, along with the other mavericks on the liner notes. When finished, I sent her the CD to Nairobi, Kenya, and about three weeks later I received a thank you phone call from Wangari herself, from Kenya, thanking me for having sent the CD and for having her name on my list of mavericks in the liner notes. At the time, I was working on a new song I had written that had a strong deep-rooted and earthy bass cadence, and decided to dedicate it to Wangari Maathai -- that became the song “Wangari Maathai.”

Can you describe what was it like recording Follow Me in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit? 

Hurricanes Irma and Maria came at a critical time after the recording of the rhythm section had been completed. Then we just needed to lay down the strings and metal tracks and the lead vocals. The hurricanes were so violent and disruptive that it prompted me to come back with equal or more determination to complete the job! The orchestral score and the copying were completed by the talented and relentless Puerto Rican arranger Francisco Figueroa, by the light of candles, cellphone and flashlight, along with buzzing mosquitoes amid heat and humidity. Although the original plan was to do it in NY, we recorded in Puerto Rico because there were no flights going out of the island, and we had to do it locally at one of the few surviving recording studios on generator power. 

How did the devastating conditions that you recorded in have an effect on the final outcome on the project?

It delayed the recording cycle, but it also contributed to the intensity and the soul of the album. This change was mostly in the singing. About two weeks after the hurricane, I was finally able to fly to NYC to record the lead vocals. At that time the power, of course, was still down in Puerto Rico and there were rumors of looting in the neighborhoods -- it was very rough, especially in the night. So while I doing the lead vocals I was thinking of my wife and my 11-year-old daughter back in the dark, eating canned food and fighting flying insects. That emotion of longing for them certainly reflected in my singing.

You’ve expressed personal concerns about the well-being of the environment. Does Follow Me take a political stance on environmental changes and our role in helping to preserve the Earth?

Sure, how can it not! We seem to be at the apex of a clash of forces never seen before in the Western Hemisphere. Plainly and simply put, the forces between ‘good and evil’ or greed and compassion are exposed more than ever and it’s certainly pronounced in politics and it is right on our face -- the press has been threatened, the judicial system is in danger of being totally corrupted and it was the environment that probably took the first hit -- I mean, we are probably seeing results of that -- right now…. So we as humans need to take a much needed stance to protect that which nurtures and sustains us most -- the earth. We must be also responsible for who we elect into office to make and enforce the policies that will protect the environment. Too many people are just focused on the immediate aspects of survival, money, and not paying attention to the whole deal.

What are you hoping that people will take away from listening to Follow Me?

Perhaps an awakening... “to rise and walk” as Wangari said, "For a better world…." There is a message -- a call to action. There is hope, joy, love and cathartic sorrow and there are also some deep emotions here that are hard to grasp and describe. Each time I hear the album I sense different emotions from different elements on the recording -- it is a very subtle thing -- sometimes it comes from a strings passage, even from the percussion, the voice, or a guitar -- but it’s there and it makes me feel good.


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