WhatsUp Interview: Newport Jazz Artist Michael Mwenso

Band Mwenso and the Shakes Play Rousing Set

Mwenso and the Shakes (Photo: Elizabeth Leitzell)

Michael Mwenso has come a long way to Newport Jazz. He’s a native of Sierra Leone, spent most of his childhood in London and later moved to New York City. His band, Mwenso and the Shakes’ calls Harlem home, although members come from far and wide, including South Africa, Jamaica, Madagascar, France and Scotland.

Mwenso was particularly excited about playing the Newport Jazz Festival.

“I’ve been coming for a few years and been in the audience … to finally perform here is a deep blessing. It’s a very spiritual and ancestral journey for me. Being a young child in London and listening to those old Newport albums and then to be here is amazing.”

Michael Mwenso at Newport Jazz (Photo: Ken Abrams)

“I started to play trombone at 11 years old, developed then, learned the art of being in bands and being a sideman, which gives you the ability to understand, and then of course, to lead. I was blessed to understand that skill set of being a musician and being in a group.”

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Mwenso and the Shakes have an upbeat, forward-leaning sound and an equally positive message. Mwenso offered some thoughts…

“I always knew that was the way; in the last few years I gained an understanding of ways of presenting the music that would have messages that help people better understand who they are and their destiny. But also to play the music in a way which deal with Bobby Bland, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Fats Waller and James Brown. And how to deal with the theatrical presentation, too.

“We try to combine those elements – spirituality, vaudeville, variety and the different times of music as it evolved. We’re very lucky that we have listened and understood what the music is that it is old roots and folk. We are playing Afro-American music in a certain way where you have to respect and adhere to all of the original concepts that the ancestors gave. (People like) Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson or Chuck Berry, the way he deals with phrasing and rhythm, or the way Brian Wilson deals with time.”

On Friday, the band was releasing a new album, Emergence, on the same day they played Newport.

“Our album Emergence came out today, it’s a very spiritual day for us. We’re emerging here today at Newport and we have the emergence of our album, which took a lot of work and documents the work of the band. I’m overjoyed.”

Members of the Shakes’ at Newport Jazz (Photo: Ken Abrams)

As for future plans, the band is about to get really busy.

 “We have a 32 city tour celebrating the anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, Harlem 100, all over the United States. It will have a concrete theme and narrative, with a script and acting, a little bit different from the normal Shakes. Its specifically on that period with Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.”

That tour includes several shows in the northeast including October 26th at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Connecticut. Click here for details on the album and tour.