Harlem-based band Mwenso & The Shakes will perform this Sunday at 7 p.m. in the Carlsen Center.
What makes Mwenso & The Shakes stand out is their “genre-less or genre-defying” style of music. Their debut album, “Emergence,” has a total of 12 tracks, each telling a story about the African American experience. The album combines sounds from genres like funk, rock-and-roll and, of course, jazz. The album, released in August, has doubled the band’s audience.
Lead vocalist Michael Mwenso’s roots in jazz started in the country of Sierra Leone in West Africa, where he was exposed to popular jaz musicians of the time. When he was 11 years old, Mwenso moved from Sierra Leone to London where he was exposed to musicians such as Benny Carter, Elvin Jones, Ray Brown and Billy Higgins. Growing up in London, he was surrounded by art and music, which is where his interest in music began. As a young adult, He started sharpening his trombone, singing and performance skills. Eventually, through his work at various jazz clubs in London, he was noticed by James Brown who gave him a spot for him to perform in the London area.
“I was very fortunate to grow up in a time where there were a lot of great jazz musicians still alive,” said Mwenso. “I trained with some bands around London and from that, I started to develop a community at a jazz club. I worked there and a [promoter] came and saw what I was doing and asked if I wanted to work at a jazz club in New York City.”
In 2012, fellow musician Wynton Marsalis offered Mwenso a job in New York City where he served as a curator and a programming associate at Jazz at Lincoln Center. While employed at Lincoln Center, Mwenso steadily built a community of fellow jazz musicians to have jam sessions. Through these sessions, Mwenso met the people that would go on to form the group that is now known as The Shakes.
At the time of creation each of the members lived in Harlem, allowing for the band to grow closer and eventually leading to the production of their first live album.
“[In London] I worked as a trombonist and played with various bands. Then that led to creating a scene [throughout] London Jazz Clubs,” said Mwenso. “Moving to New York was the pinnacle, it allowed me to meet all the members of The Shakes. We all lived in Harlem as well, which is what inspired the Harlem Renaissance Tour.”
Each member of the group brings a different style of music and performance. The band is comprised of nine total members. Michael Mwenso (bandleader, vocals), Vuyo Sotashe (vocals), Kyle Poole (drums), Gabe Schnider (guitar), Mathis Picard (piano and keys), Ruben Fox (tenor sax), Julian Lee (tenor sax), Russell Hall (bass) and Michela Marino Lerman (tap dance). Recently the band embarked on their first national tour, titled Harlem 100.
“If it’s a Mwenso & The Shakes show, it’s very wild. It’s theatrical and costume driven,” said Mwenso. “We’ve never actually done a [stage] setup like this before. It’s meant to depict a Harlem apartment, with couches and chairs on the stage.”
With less than a month of shows left in the tour, Mwenso reflects on what the true meaning of the show is and why it has become so important to him.
“The real message of the tour is that we’re representing black people and the greatness of what they’ve done,” said Mwenso. “A big message of the tour is representing the greatness of the Afro-American and that’s what’s really becoming my favorite aspect of the tour. Meeting people and seeing them happy while performing at places every night [is my favorite part]. I love to uplift and enrich people’s lives.”
Mwenso & The Shakes will be performing live on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. in Yardley Hall. General admission and student tickets are still available for purchase online and at the Carlsen Center box office.
Story by Alieu Jagne