When Michael Mwenso and his band, Mwenso & the Shakes, take to the Skyline Stage on March 28 with “Hope, Resist, & Heal,” they’ll be looking to empower and uplift their audience with their unique blend of jazz, traditional African music and much more.
“We want to give people hope, we want to give people strength, and we want to heal people,” said Mwenso of the performance, which will take place as part of the Georgia Tech Arts Skyline Series. Mwenso was born in Sierra Leone and raised in London. His mother was deported to Nigeria when he was young, and he was raised by an English landlord who distracted him from the pain of missing his mom by opening his eyes to the world of Black music. Mwenso learned piano and trombone, and attended concerts around London. When he was still an adolescent, he connected with the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown.
As he grew older, Mwenso began to build a community at the famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. After visiting the club, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis invited Mwenso to come to New York to join Marsalis’ organization: Jazz at Lincoln Center.
It was during Mwenso’s time at Jazz at Lincoln Center that Mwenso & the Shakes was born. Much of the band’s membership — which is currently at nine but has gone up to 20 or 30 — came out of the Lincoln Center community, though the band’s members originate from South Africa, the U.S., Jamaica, and Europe.
The music of Mwenso & the Shakes has been described as genreless, but Mwenso himself says that the band simply tries to play “a history of Black music.” The band doesn’t use any sheet music; they write their songs in a community-based, oral process that brings the whole group together. The final product reflects themes of hope and persistence, and features a substantial amount of improvisation.
“We are students of jazz music, so improvisation is very important to us,” Mwenso said, “The musicians have the freedom to improvise so we never play the same song twice.”
Mwenso’s first inspiration for his music are what he calls the “ancestors” — the musicians who came before. He mentions James Brown, Arethra Franklin, Billie Holiday and more; but really, he says, it’s everybody in the history of music.
Mwenso & the Shakes strive to use the messages of these greats to tell their own story — as Mwenso says, “to take what they put down and reshape it.”
The opportunities for Mwenso & the Shakes have expanded in the wake of the pandemic and the reckoning over the murder of George Floyd. Over the last year Mwenso and his creative partner Jono Gasparro started a company called “Electric Root,” and have partnered with institutions to decolonize music curriculums, reshape programming and create artist led, anti racist workshops.
“It’s changed our lives,” Mwenso said, “Now there are more opportunities to create a deeper experience of Black music.”
“Hope, Resist, & Heal,” will be the band’s first live show since October, and will open several months of outdoor arts programming for the Tech and Atlanta communities with the Georgia Tech Arts Skyline Series. The program will take place on a stage being specially built in the W21 parking lot at the intersection of Ferst Drive and State Street.
On March 29, Mwenso will lead a free artist discussion and listening experience indoors at the Ferst Center with limited in-person attendance to explore Black Roots music.
“We’re very blessed and very thankful to Georgia Tech for creating this opportunity, not only to perform but to engage with the students,” said Mwenso, “We want to talk to people about the music, answer questions about how they feel and what they think, and present a new way of experiencing Black music.”
Tickets for Mwenso’s “Hope, Resist, & Heal” and “Discovering Black Roots Music” are on sale now at artsgatech.universitytickets.com.