In times of challenge, can humans be like hummingbirds — tiny specs on global scales that still try to make a difference? Wangari Maathai, the first African woman and environmentalist to win a Nobel Peace Prize, thought so. In her tale of a hummingbird that bravely battles a forest fire alone, she explains that someone’s best effort, no matter how small, is often enough to create change. And years after her death, her message — the message of the hummingbird is being spread through pianist, composer, rocker, jazz artist and Puerto Rican native, Carli Muñoz’s new album Follow Me.

“I saw a little article in a local café where I live. It had a picture of Maathai and mentioned her winning the Nobel Peace Prize,” Muñoz recounted. At the time, Muñoz, who has played with Chico Hamilton, Rickie Lee Jones, Etta James and George Benson in addition to The Beach Boys, was working on his 2005 Maverick album with Eddie Gomez.

“I wanted to salute mavericks of past and present in this album,” Muñoz said. Sparked by the newspaper article at the café, Maathai became one of those mavericks that he honored on that album. He then sent a copy to Maathai at the nonprofit she started in Kenya, The Green Belt Movement. He soon got a personal call from Maathai thanking him for the album. And, now, seven years after her death, he has teamed up with The Green Belt Movement to continue her message.

“We are linked in a common purpose — working together toward a common goal,” Muñoz said of the partnership with Maathai’s nonprofit.

The lead single on Follow Me, is “Wangari Maathai”. In the song, her name is chanted, as well as some of her famous words spoken:

“The generation that destroyed the environment is not the generation that pays the price. That is the problem. When we plant trees we plant seeds of hope. We cannot tired or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk. These are the words of Wangari Maathai.”

Wangari Maathai, photo by Oregon State University

Maathai’s efforts with The Green Belt Movement focused on the root of environmental degradation, deforestation, and food security by seeking to overcome disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and loss of traditional values in communities. She did this through environmental education within these communities deeply affected by these issues. It’s a sentiment that Muñoz relates to as someone who early on noticed the contrasting circumstances of people in the world.

“Since I was a kid, I have always taken on the underdog. I tried to look for the balance and anyway I could contribute to that balance,” he said.

As a product of the 60’s, with a long career in the music industry, seeking that balance is a part of what keeps him motivated. Muñoz enjoys the camaraderie of playing with other musicians and constantly learning. However, deeper than that, Muñoz is driven by the possibility of bringing a message that can make a difference and that may inspire many people — or just one person.

“Musicians have access to the microphone in front of a lot of people and audiences. If we have that privilege, we can put it to use,” he said.

Like the hummingbird, faced with challenges in a fiery forest, as recounted on his song, “The Hummingbird”, Muñoz embodied this spirit while working on bringing the messages of Follow Me to audiences. He was at home in Puerto Rico working on the album when Hurricane Maria caused devastation last year.

“The hurricane was devastating. There was a total blackout for quite some time,” he recalled.

Morning after Hurricane Maria

“After the storms, we were stuck here. It was dark — no AC, flying insects, and we ate out of canned food,” Muñoz said. They battled the darkness by candlelight. He originally planned to do the strings sections of the album in New York, but the hurricane left him stranded. However, the music continued. In order to finish the score, the arranger had to use a combination of candles, cell phone light, and flashlight. And there was only one studio that they could work in that had survived the storm. In the devastation and aftermath of the hurricane, they assembled musicians from miles away, even in the faraway hills, and recorded the strings.

“It is such a beautiful session. I am particularly touched by the string arrangements on this,” Muñoz relished.

Just over two weeks later, to finish the album, he had to return to New York, leaving his wife and daughter back home. These are conflicted and longing feelings reflected in a lot of the vocals on Follow Me.

“My wife and daughter were back at home eating out of cans and eating sardines,” Muñoz said. He felt guilty about the luxuries in New York City — air conditioning and premium meals — while his family had to struggle with the hardships of the hurricane back home.

“If I sound nostalgic, that is where it comes from. That’s how I was affected by the hurricane and that is how the music was affected by the hurricane,” Muñoz reflected.

On the album, Muñoz is particularly fond of the “Tujunga Waltz” song, but acknowledged that this is the first time that he is truly happy with every song on an album. It’s a project full of spontaneity. Both a skillful rock and accomplished jazz artist, Muñoz pushes the boundaries on Follow Me, not sticking to one genre. He hopes the album can also push boundaries beyond the musical notes.

“Hopefully, some good things can come from the album– ways for people to know that you don’t have to be big or little or important. Just be who you are, and you can make a world of difference,” Muñoz said.

Follow Me
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