Whitney Moore is an Asheville native, but her band is bringing a world beat sound to this year’s Bele Chere Festival. “It’s a mix of rumba, son, cumbia, R&B, reggae, and we’re moving more towards funky stuff,” the singer says. “I’ve been calling it Latin Soul. I love Latin rhythms, and that’s probably always going to be in there. But vocally, lyrically, melodically, I think I’m more Soul Jazz.”
Moore recalls falling in love with Billie Holiday’s “old, mournful, blues standards.” Then it was Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, and the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin. While living in Spain, Moore was first moved by the powerful singers of nueva cancion. “Mercedes Sosa, an Argentine vocalist. Violeta Parra. Victor Jara from Chile. These are revolutionary singers, there’s a tradition of it. In South America and Latin America, they were writing songs and performing songs with the goal of social change and empowerment.
“A lot of them were awesome vocalists, as well as amazing songwriters. I spent a few years listening to nothing but that. Pablo Milanes, Silvio Rodriguez. I was blessed to work with several musicians in Spain and in California who had actually been part of those movements. It was inspiring to work with people who had actually used music in a world-changing capacity.”
This will be the first time Moore has played her hometown’s biggest festival, largely because she’s spent much of the last ten years in Spain, the San Francisco Bay area, New York, Nashville, and Mexico. Occasional visits to Asheville have seen her fronting the Latin band Montuno and world funk group Adivina.
Moore was brought up around music. Her parents were in a regionally touring rock’n’roll band when she was young. “I have memories of my mom [singer Nancy Rollins] picking me up from kindergarten in some crazy stage outfit, and I’m going, ‘Why can’t you have an old fashioned dress like the other kids’ moms,'” she says, laughing. “But I really loved it, you know.
“When I was seven or eight, they wanted more reasonable hours,” she recalls. “They started Tuxedo Junction, a wedding-and-event band, so they could do better paying gigs, just on the weekends, and have more time at home during the week.”
Her father, drummer Joey Moore, was an early Bele Chere director, as well as performer. “I was at band rehearsals with them all the time, and going to their shows,” Whitney says. “I couldn’t wait to grow up and be just like them, and play with them. I grew up on it. They said I was singing three-part harmonies by the time I was four. Mom would sing the melody, I’d sing the second, then my dad would throw on the third, and I’d hang on.”
Moore graduated from Asheville High School in 1998 and studied healing arts at UNC-A. “I didn’t plan to be a full-time musician because it didn’t seem practical,” she explains. “I looked at how hard my parents had to struggle, and how relatively little money they made for all their work, and I was actually planning to be an acupuncturist. I would study all of that with the plan of practicing, and I would enjoy it, but it always came back to music.
“There was never really anything else. That was what I was known for all through my childhood. I was the singer, to all the kids at school, at church, everywhere, that was what I did.”
After two years at UNC-A, Moore moved to Madrid to sing some jazz and Celtic music. “My intention was always to come back, but it just never made sense,” she says. “I was always getting gigs and kind of living the dreams that I had, traveling and performing. I just wanted to travel, honestly. Most of my 20s were spent following intuitions and going places to study and have new experiences.”
Moore became bilingual while living in Spain. “I took Spanish in high school like most folks, but I really just learned while I was there. You learn fast when you get pushed in the water and have to swim.
“It’s funny that I’ve ended up kind of specializing in Latin music, like that’s what people know me for,” the singer says. “I do my own version of it.”
“I’ve had an interesting life, and I’m blessed to be able to say that I’ve pretty much lived all my dreams,” Moore says. “Sometimes it feels like I’ve done all the ‘stuff’ that I wanted to do. So I guess a lot of times in my songs I’m like, ‘Now what?’ Like trying to live my life for a bigger purpose, and figuring out what that is. Just knowing that getting ‘stuff’ isn’t going to make you happy.
“At this moment in my life and my career I’m thinking, ‘Where is the intersection of my gift and my passion and the world’s need?’ Like, ‘How can I, through my teaching or through my music be of service to the world?'”
Moore hopes her songs will promote healing. “A lot of my songs are telling someone else’s story. Whether it’s inventing the resolution I would have loved to have been able to facilitate for them and wasn’t, or just venting their difficulties,” she says. “And sometimes it’s a little more abstract than that — you know how songwriting goes.”
Moore’s band at Bele Chere will feature bassist Shayne Heather, drummer Micah Thomas, saxophonist Jason Moore and keyboardist Jeff Knorr (for Daniel Barber). “I love my band,” she says. “We’ve got a great thing going. Shayne is so soulful and solid, and great at the Latin stuff. We’ve written a few songs together that really bring that funky soul flavor. Micah is fantastic — super high energy and funky, and kind of takes the grooves and makes them ours.
“We’re not trying to imitate styles — we’re more just creating something different that is a mix of world music styles.”