An Interview with Khalif Wailin’ Walter, an unique boogie-blues musician who lit up the modern scene

"I wish that African-Americans would embrace this music in its original form more. It is our history we should keep and preserve it."

Khalif Wailin' Walter: Flamin' Voodoo Axeman

Khalif Wailin’ Walter lit up the Chicago Blues music scene with his unique style of boogie Blues. He now calls the European market his home base where he was received warmly after several short tour stints there as a sideman. Walter’s stormy guitar work and brash New Orleans style vocals generate the band’s traditional down-home sound, reminiscent of greats like Freddie King, Albert King, and Albert Collins.

Fused with contemporary style and innovative original arrangements, and he delivers foot stomping finger snapping Blues that sets the roof on fire. He appeared regularly on the Chicago Blues circuit, and performs in venues and festivals throughout the U.S. & Europe. Khalif is a guitarist, singer, bandleader, and songwriter. He received a BA in Jazz performance from Chicago’s Roosevelt University and his minor concentration of study was African-American History. He has toured with and performed under the tutelage of his uncle and mentor, Carl Weathersby.

He was a 4 year band alumnus of Lonnie Brooks Band and completed a European tour with him. He has accompanied B.B. King’s daughter Shirley King as her bandleader throughout the U.S. and has appeared on stage with such Blues giants as Taj Mahal, Otis Rush, Jimmy Vaughan’s Band, Buddy Guy’s Band, Junior Wells, Bernard Allison, Pinetop Perkins, Billy Branch, Sugar Blue, Larry McCray, Keith Dunn, Louisiana Red, and A.C. Reed.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues means to you?

It’s really like meditation and prayer for me. It’s the place where my soul feels plugged in to that universal energy that connects us all as humans. I do with it what anyone should do with a gift and that's to share it as best I can.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

Well I'm from Chicago. You just walk 100 meters down the street on any given day and you can see the very best and the very worst of humanity. I just try to paint pictures of these stories with my lyrics and music that people can feel and that move people in some way.

"Jazz comes from my head, Blues from my gut, funk comes from the hips, and well Rock comes from somewhere else below the waste. I am experimenting with some new things though."

How do you describe Khalif Walter sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Great question...I have played in many different settings. Touring Rock band, jazz in University, funk bands. There is nothing in the world that touches me like a real down home shuffle but that for me isn’t enough to express myself. My music is my statement. Where I feel complete is when I am challenging myself completely mind, body, soul, and spirit.. I need the different styles to be me. Jazz comes from my head, Blues from my gut, funk comes from the hips, and well Rock comes from somewhere else below the waste. I am experimenting with some new things though. I like the challenge of playing solo acoustic. I like the challenge of playing acoustic in a band setting. I am expanding my song writing and trying to push myself more for the next CD. And I really want my voice to be more of an instrument on its own. My musical philosophy is that if I get to a point where I don't absolutely love this and keep growing then it’s time to quit and find something else to do. Life is way too short.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Probably the best was the first time I played the Chicago Blues Festival under my own name. I kept saying all I needed was just a chance. I wanted to prove that I deserved the title Chicago Bluesman. I think another great moment was the first time I realized people were singing along with my songs that they knew my music.

The worst...that has to be a gig I did in Lithuania called Bluzio Naktys. I couldn't take my full band and I played with another bass player. He was totaled drunk by the time my set started at midnight and was falling off the stage. Unfortunately my name was the one on the marquis not his and I looked bad. To this day if I see that guy, he had better just run.

What is the “feel” you miss nowadays from the OLD DAYS OF CHICAGO BLUES?

Definitely the storytelling aspect of songwriting and the fact that this music was by, for, and of "the people". I like the old school guys who really knew how to connect with an audience.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

To be honest although it had nothing to do with music, the birth of my son completely changed everything in my life. I took a year and a half away from music to stay at home and I still work very hard when I'm home to just be Daddy. It very much put everything in life into perspective. That said I truly do enjoy my life in the present moment only. The past is gone and the future is not promised. No matter what is going on I just enjoy the fact that I'm blessed to be alive and present in that moment.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Don't...but if you do anyway, I warned you. (laughing hysterically) Really just learn the business. Everyone wants to be then next guy that turns the musical world upside down but generally that rarely happens. Learn how the business works so that you can continue to work. I also say keep your feet firmly grounded in reality. Talk to other working musicians so you know what you are actually getting yourself into.

Why did you think that the Blues culture continues to generate such a devoted following in Europe?

My personal impression is that it’s just different. It’s a curiosity. But I also think that there is spirituality to the music an expressiveness that is unique to the Blues. People like to be moved in this way.

Are there any memories from Louisiana Red, Otis Rush, and Junior Wells, which you’d like to share with us?

I have a lot of special memories of all of people I have met. The most humbling thing is that all of these people just took the time to share some of themselves with me. Most of these people don’t have or didn’t leave this world with lots of money. They gave me what they had to share, their time and knowledge. I am very blessed to have met each and every one of them. From Red I really learned much more about life than anything else musically he taught me.

"From Red I really learned much more about life than anything else musically he taught me." Photo: Michael Frank, Honeyboy Edwards, Khalif, Louisiana Red, Keith Dunn and friends

Which memory from Taj Mahal, Pinetop Perkins, and Billy Branch makes you smile?

The funniest blues story I have is about Billy Branch but I absolutely cannot tell that to anybody. Billy and I still laugh about it but it's private.

The first time I got to play with Pinetop was amazing. He looked at me during the first song and asked "Are you ready, son? It’s your solo. Showtime".

I played with Taj on the Legendary Blues Cruise at the pro Jam with Curtis Salgado. The next morning at breakfast Taj walked up to me and Lonnie Brooks while we were having breakfast. Taj said "Lonnie this boy is one Bad Mutha F%&#" which to me was one of the highest compliments I have every received.

I have enjoyed the moment being on the stage with all of them. Music is a conversation and I did just that with all of these guys. I enjoyed the conversation in that moment. I like being challenged by other players.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best advice ever given to you?

I can’t really say. I have learned so much from a lot of people. I learned probably the most from my Uncle Carl Weathersby, and a lot from my time with Lonnie Brooks. But honestly I have learned far more about life from all of these guys than I have anything about music. The best advice given to me I have heard from more than one person. Find your own musical voice. That’s really important to me.

"I learned probably the most from my Uncle Carl Weathersby, and a lot from my time with Lonnie Brooks. But honestly I have learned far more about life from all of these guys than I have anything about music."

What the difference and similarity between the BLUES, JAZZ, SOUL, and ROCK feeling?

Well they all originated from one common thread and that is it's about telling your story painting your picture in the way in the way you want. Musically, it also should be a conversation between the musicians concentrated on participating in that immediate moment. This music all came from an oral tradition; guys "talking to each other" on stage through their music. I feel like Jazz comes from a different place it’s a little more cerebral. I like having the expanded vocabulary as part of my repertoire. I think Rock has a reckless abandon to it and an aggression that I sometimes need. Soul for me combines the story telling of Blues with the expanded musical vocabulary of Jazz. In the end that should all move you in some way touch you in some way.

Tell something about making this new album? Which memory from recording time makes you smile?

 I am incredibly happy with the new CD "She Put The Voodoo On Me". On my last CD, I tried really hard to do a CD that sounded like what I thought was expected. I wasn't being honest though with myself musically or lyrically. I drastically changed my sound. I took a lot of time to completely strip everything down; new band, new songs, new amps, and I even built my own guitars to get to the sound I wanted. I still love to play that down home Chicago style and my heart will always have some of that in it but I need the sensuality of funk rhythms, the aggression of rock guitar leads, and the subtle cerebral control of jazz chording. That's my sound. And I wrote and arranged all of the tunes so they truly are my story. The one thing I still laugh about is that all the backing vocals and auxiliary percussion on the CD is me. I played triangle, tambourine, and cowbell. I standing in a booth with just a triangle...that was hilarious.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Oh hell yeah, Have you ever heard Eric Davis, Toronzo Cannon, Tom Holland, Michael Dotson, Omar Coleman, Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith, Eddie Taylor Jr., or Russ Green from Chicago?

"I wish that African-Americans would embrace this music in its original form more. It is our history we should keep and preserve it." Photo: The new hot Blues blood of Chicago: Sam Green, Khalif Wailin Walter, Toronzo Cannon, and Stan Skibby

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

I think as long as someone in the world has a story to tell and can relate to the harmonic structure blues will be around. In the words of Albert King "Everybody understands the blues". I wish that African-Americans would embrace this music in its original form more. It is our history we should keep and preserve it.

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage and what are the thumb of your sound?

In my live show, I try to just take everyone on a journey. If you like the trip you are welcome to come along and if not the train is leaving without you. What I always enjoy playing live is that I feel like it’s almost like prayer. I connect to this energy that flows through us all links us all as humans. And for a few moments at a time I am just one with that energy. It’s not me the music is just flowing through me.  What I have been told by some people in the audience is that sometimes I look as if nothing in the world exists for me except me and my guitar. It sort of feels like that.

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

Yeah as I said. It’s used for marketing purposes too much. Increasingly more Blues-Rock is flooding the market. Most of this music actually has very little to do with Blues except using the word "Blues" as a marketing label to sell records. The songwriting tends to be used as vehicles to show off guitar chops and don’t really try to touch connect or reach the audience in any way. It’s very egotistical musical approach.

"I actually think that Blues is very much connected to and alive in African-American culture, it has just evolved. Look at the type of people that this music originated from."

What's the legacy of Blues todays? Do you know why the Blues is connected to the Afro American culture?

Blues is our history as African-Americans. It is a gift that we gave to the world and it continues to live in the funk and rock we listen to today and further continues to be imitated all over the world. I actually think that Blues is very much connected to and alive in African-American culture, it has just evolved. Look at the type of people that this music originated from. Young, mostly Male, African-American, Disenfranchised, under employed, suffering lack of economic opportunity, lack of inclusion in society. It started with hands as percussion and the voice as our instrument. Now look at Hip-Hop and gangsta rap. Young, Male, African-American, Disenfranchised, under employed, suffering lack of economic opportunity, lack of inclusion in society. It started with "beat boxing" and hand clapping as our percussion and the voice. Rappers are telling their story and it’s full of the struggle of daily life.

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

Hhhhhmmmm....I can't think of one really that has to do with music. If I left this world tomorrow, I would want to be remembered as a good person first and a good father second. All the rest are not so important.

Khalif Wailin’ Walter  - website

Khalif's son Max at his first concert appearance he sang "I got my Mojo Workin" Photo: Bert Lek

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