Jazz band Mwenso & the Shakes is slated to perform at McCarter Theatre on Nov. 6. The group describes itself as a “troupe of global artists who perform music that merges the highest form of entertainment and artistry while commanding a formidable timeline of jazz and blues expression through African and Afro American music.” The Daily Princetonian had the opportunity to sit down with lead vocalist and bandleader Michael Mwenso to preview the upcoming show.
The Daily Princetonian: You were born in Sierra Leone but spent much of your youth hanging out at jazz clubs in London. Can you tell me more about how you got your start in music, and who some of your most important influences are?
Michael Mwenso: I was really raised in London, and London was really where the spark of music hit me. It was there that I was able to meet many great artists and musicians who influenced my life, such as James Brown, B. B. King, and Eddie Carter — a lot of musicians that I met as a child who helped me and guided me to get me to this place where I am with the band, with Mwenso & the Shakes. It’s been a journey from London to New York to here now. It was hanging out with all these artists and musicians. It was getting to becoming a musician — a trombonist — and then having the ability to be in different bands that allowed me to fully understand music and develop into an artist who had an inquisitiveness about African-American music. It was being in different kinds of bands and different kinds of communities, whether it was reggae bands, Afrobeat bands, or jazz bands; it all added to who I am now. So when you hear our music as the Shakes, you will hear a lot of different genres happening there, and I think of it as a tribute to me growing up and saturating myself in music in certain ways that really propelled me to be who I am today.
DP: You are now the leader and lead vocalist of the jazz band Mwenso & the Shakes. When and how did this group come together?
MM: When I was asked by Wynston Marsalis in 2010 to come work in New York City at Jazz at Lincoln Center, that was really the meeting point for how the Shakes really developed and grew. Out of me creating a scene there and, through the scene, a community that allowed me to find the Shakes and connect and bring them together as a band. We have Ruben Fox from London on the tenor saxophone, Vuyo Sotashe as a great vocalist and amazing human being, Michela Lerman the tap dancer, Julian Lee on the saxophone, Mathis Picard who is on piano, drums is Kyle Poole from Los Angeles, and on bass, Russell Hall from Kingston, Jamaica.
DP: You recently released your debut album, “Emergence.” What was the process of recording it like, and what do you hope listeners will appreciate or get out of it?
MM: It’s taken years for us to get to this point. The process is like how the album is titled; it has been a process of coming into being, and there is something that has been very natural about it too. It has been very natural for us to develop and create a band that is unique in this way. I pray and hope that people get from it a deeper knowledge of the history of the music and the culture that also is able to give them a wanting to know more about it — not just about the Harlem Renaissance, but also about African-American history and culture.
DP: You are coming to McCarter Theater on November 6 as part of your Harlem 100 tour. Can you tell more about what this tour is about, and what we should be looking forward to in November?
MM: You should be looking forward to a musical celebration that will depict and point out the premier artists of that time, not only who they were but also their importance. We do it in a way that will have some historical narratives, but it will also have some modernist qualities to it too, in the sense of the way that we present the music and the way we perform it. That will be different. It won’t just sound like the way it did in 1934.
DP: Is there anything else coming up for your group, or anything that we should be following? What are your hopes for the near and distant future?
MM: We’ve got some things in the pipelines. We just got considered for a Grammy nomination, which we are excited about. We don’t know how far we are going to get, but we are excited. Also, we have a big production that we are looking forward to doing next year in January at an institution called the National Sawdust in Brooklyn. We are looking forward to writing lots of original music. I just want us to make as big an impact as we can, to do it with definitiveness, and to be able to make people think and feel and think about music differently.
DP: Is there anything else you would like to add?
MM: Come see us. Come support the band. Come support the show.