Kirk Whalum is a native Memphian, and, although he's lived around the world and traveled widely as a star saxophonist, he's living back in his hometown these days, and he's a primary force in helping reinvent Memphis as a true city of the world. Nowhere is that more apparent than on his latest release, Humanité (Artistry Music), and the accompanying film, Humanité: The Beloved Community.
The new album is a truly global effort. It exudes a sort of international cosmopolitan spirit that could sound at home on radios from Jakarta to New York, evoking a sense of connectedness with the wider world, as experienced through the struggles of its least powerful citizens. Precisely because of its global vision, it may be his most personal record to date.
- Kirk Whalum
Memphis Flyer: How would you describe the sound of your new record? I see it's been produced using artists and studios all over the world.
Kirk Whalum: It's definitely groovin'. That was one of the objectives. The narrative might lead you to believe it was kind of world music. But it's only world music in the sense that there is really a world platform behind the idea of it. But sonically, it's definitely pop, in the sense that it's danceable and, you know, groovy.
How did this album come to be?
It started with this recurring scenario where I was encountering these artists, whether emerging or established, in some faraway lands. And I came to this point where I was looking at turning 60, and I was like, "Geez, wait a minute. That happened way too fast." And that really sobered me. I said, "All right, dude, what are you gonna be doing? What you intended to do right now, are you doing it?" And the answer was no. You know, I consider myself kind of a global citizen, but I just didn't feel like I was living that. So I was like, "Man, I'm gonna be all about it." That's when this project kind of coagulated, and I was off to the airport. I didn't wait for a record company. I just started going. And I told my friend John Hanon, an award-winning filmmaker, about the project, and he said, "Well, let's go. We'll deal with the business later, but let's get this done." And sure enough, he made an amazing documentary, Humanité: The Beloved Community.
The things that you and I do to help facilitate a global perspective are more important than ever. I would be remiss to not mention this reactionary space we're in as a country, and in our world right now. We need all the help we can get to just keep each other reminded.
Are there any of these songs in particular that address that need for global awareness?
I would point out two: "Now I Know" and "Kwetu." "Now I Know" features the No. 1 artist in South Africa, Zahara. She lives in Johannesburg, and yet her story is about being from a little village out in the bush. The main thing you get in English is, "Now I know who you are," and for me that would be God and Christ. "I'll never be afraid again. Now I know who I am, I'm never letting go of love."
And the other song, "Kwetu," features the children of a neighborhood in Nairobi called Korogocho — and by the way, there's another song called "Korogocho" — but on "Kwetu," these kids are playing their instruments. And they live next to the city dump. When they burn all that refuse, the toxic smoke wafts over to their little school. But this little ray of hope is their music program, called Ghetto Classics. To have them in the studio was just precious, man. Those two songs really get to the heart of what the music's about. You'll feel a little more in touch with the global reality we're in, in a positive way.
Hear Kirk Whalum with his regular concert series, Kafé Kirk at Crosstown Theater, with special guest Wendy Moten, Sunday, December 1st, 6 p.m.