Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

5 questions for Michael Mwenso: The Shakes bandleader emphasizes self-love in quest for artistic truth

By Heather Longley

Author and activist Langston Hughes described the Harlem Renaissance—an era that spanned the 1920s—as an artistic and cultural time for African Americans to express themselves without fear, shame, or restrained thought to the enslavement of their ancestors.

Generations later, bandleader Michael Mwenso wants to share a similar message—for his fellow musicians to recognize their worth and to practice an uninhibited approach to their art.

With Harlem 100: Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, Mwenso and his band The Shakes revive that period with a revue-style event featuring funkified jazz standards and not-so-standards. It’s a reimagining of the artistic contributions of that era—with a swagger to match.

The event features fresh arrangements of works by singers and bandleaders of the time—Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and more—with solos by vocalists Suyo Votashe and Brianna Thomas, and tap-dance artist Michela Marino Lerman.

In an interview with JazzTimes, Thomas, a New York City-based singer, describes the ensemble’s performances as “theatre meets opera meets James Brown meets jazz meets total improvisation.”

The show, which includes projected images of Harlem’s heyday, comes off like a revue in which the jazz standards are revised and reshaped, everyone on stage knows past and present musical codes, and the band can change directions in an instant. Years of incidental hob-nobbing with R&B and jazz greats allowed Mwenso to develop his love of the music, while those connections helped him get the band together for nightclub salons in New York City’s great jazz clubs.

“This is music we’ve been performing for a while,” Mwenso, a native of Sierra Leone, says in an interview with the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State. “It just naturally evolved that we became the face of Harlem 100.”

Q: You have referred to the plight of jazz, where musicians “pick from the tree” but rarely give back to it.

A: Today we have some of the finest and most diverse musicians that I think the music has ever seen. We just need more jobs and opportunities so that they can work.

Q: You seem to be inspired by the physical manifestation of music—how it affects people and gets them to move. How do you motivate an audience content with tapping their toes?

A: We play to many different audiences sitting down or standing. We prefer to play in venues that allow people to dance. We also want people to feel comfortable, but we also can code-switch to different environments.

Q: Can you explain how The Shakes arrives at a song’s new arrangement or delivery? You can see from videos online that the group members have a real comradery.

A: Everything we play, we have learnt aurally, meaning we have learnt by ear. All The Shakes are great readers. … We all commune at Michela’s house, which is where a lot of the music has come from. The core group has been together for five years.

Q: One thing I noticed after watching various videos of your group perform is the use of communal language and cues, and also the empowering messages you convey—of loving oneself, believing in oneself, acceptance and the love of self and others. Why is this message important to share with your audience?

A: We have three values in the group: to portray a reflection of the history of black music; to present a show that deals with drama, cabaret, and vaudeville; and to bring people a message of overcoming and to believe in yourself. This is important for us, so that our music is conscious and has meaning.

Q: As a child hanging out in a nightclub while your mother worked, you met and developed a rapport with major R&B and jazz musicians, some of whom provided you musical and stage opportunities. What would you say to someone looking into your circle about any challenges you faced moving to Britain, assimilating into society, and then moving to the United States to further your dream?

A: Well whatever you want, you have to believe in yourself, and sometimes that means immigrating to find your aspirations. As a child, London was that for me. It enabled me to seek and meet many incredible musicians. New York has given me the ability to deepen that.

Heather Longley is a communication specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.