The musical diversity of Mwenso and The Shakes

Thursday, August 29, 2019 - 4:43pm


To say the music of Mwenso and The Shakes is pretty wild is an understatement. It's part jazz,  part funk and part Broadway show tunes. Michael Mwenso says his group combines art and performance. A little Sly Stone and Bertolt Brecht. Mwenso spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman recently. They talked about music, art and performing for James Brown.


Carol Hills: The music of Mwenso and the Shakes — to say it's pretty wild is an understatement. Part jazz, part Broadway, part funk and elements of German cabaret. I know it sounds crazy, but as you'll soon hear, Michael Mwenso says they aim to combine art and performance.

Michael Mwenso spoke to The World's Marco Werman recently. They talked music, art and, yep, James Brown.

Marco Werman: Michael Mwenso joins us from New York. Your music is wonderful and it seems to kind of follow this path that your life has traced. It's a path that kind of makes up a map, of sorts, of the African diaspora, from Freetown in Sierra Leone where you were born to the colonial power, London, and then to New York and the States, which obviously has its own cultural role in the music you gravitate to. How much is that path, that route you've taken on your mind during the creative process?

Michael Mwenso: I think it's more in the spirit. I think you are a passport of everywhere you've been. You are an identity of everywhere you've been. Every place you've lived in the world must also be part of your spirit, not so much your mind, but your spirit and your soul, and definitely in the music you hear. And thank you for liking the music. In the music that you hear, you're exactly correct. You're hearing all of the places that my spirit dwells in. And you're hearing the experiences that one had in them. Whether it is West Africa, whether it is London, whether it is now the United States, that life has been all informed by where the spirit has gone to. So you are correct.

Werman: When did music become so important in your life?

Mwenso: I think when we moved to London, when my mother got married and [my father] passed away, and that was a very traumatic experience for her and me. And that was a period of time when we were separated, me and my mother. I was living with a gentleman that was my godfather, really — he was almost like a father to me — and he had this incredible collection of vinyl records that were the whole span of black music: Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles. The music just started to help this lonely child who was missing his mother and wishes he knew his father. The music became sort of a counselor, sort of a friend. And then I just kind of developed more into it and then allowed myself to also kind of experience myself in it by seeing them and getting to know some of them.

Werman: And that was in London when you moved there?

Mwenso: In London — 11 to 12 years old, yeah.

Werman: I know somewhere in the middle of all of this, in London, you came into the orbit of Wynton Marsalis and also James Brown. There is a video clip where you are dancing onstage at a James Brown gig. How did that happen?

Mwenso: James Brown — I stalked him for three years. That's really it. Anything you want in life, you have to be persistent and consistent. So James Brown — I don't know what happened. Like, at eleven years old, he just took over my life. It was a tape. I was in boarding school and it just happened and I just went crazy. And then he came. I saw him. He said I was cute. And that was it. Next [time] J came — same thing: "Nice to meet you, son." Third time, I said to my mom, "We're gonna go to the airport and meet the band, so we can get him at the soundcheck." Because I had to get to know him and I wanted him to see the talent I had.

And it happened. At the soundcheck, I bamboozled him and then shocked him and then he allowed me to come onstage for the next few years.

Werman: How did how did you shock him? Did you just show him a few dance moves? In the video, you are on fire.

Mwenso: Well, he was at the sound check and he's playing organ. You know, he thinks he could play organ. And then I went up to him, and you know how some of the older musicians, you start naming stuff they don't think anybody knows. So, he did some albums in the 1960s. One of them is called "Devil's Den." I said to him, "I bet you can't remember 'Devil's Den.'" He said, "What? What do you know about that?" So I started to play. Then he kicked me off. He said, "You don't know what you're doing, son." 

And then, you know, he starts conducting the band, I think he's forgotten about me, and then he points to me to do a solo. I play. He stops the band, he says, "What's your name again?" I said, "Michael Mwenso." "What do you say the name was?" I said I could do the splits, too. I did two splits — Boom! Boom! He said, "What? What do you want to sing? Give it up, turn it loose! One, two, three, four!" I start doing the splits, twists, singing all kinds of stuff. He stops the band and says, "You got a suit?" I said, "Yes,sir." "You're coming on stage tonight." And that was it.

And from then, he allowed me till I got too tall because, you know, he's like 5-foot-6. So, you know, when I started getting too tall, he was like, "Son, it is not cute anymore." But, those years of knowing him and having the privilege to go on stage and witness him, I think molded me for my adulthood, for the rest of my life to get to know someone like that, you know?

Werman: And now with your band, The Shakes, you're rooted in New York City. If one can think of your work with the Shakes as kind of a distillation of everything you've done so far, describe your band in that context for us, because there's kind of a Sly and the Family Stone vibe to it. And that's a compliment, by the way.

Mwenso: I know it is. Listen, listen — don't even start me. We have three values as The Shakes. We're trying to deal with, one: musical presentation that deals with the whole history of black music; two: a spiritual message that deals with empowerment and belief; and three: a stage presentation that deals with theater and drama and vaudeville. So, we're just trying to really do those three values of art and performance and trying to elevate them to even higher and wider kind of streams of what we have seen before. We want you to be able to see Earth, Wind and Fire. James Brown, Duke Ellington, Frank Zappa, all on the same stage. We want to be able to extend that trajectory of what has been done before through all of those different vehicles of presentation, whether it's vaudeville, cabaret, etc..

And also, we want to add the spiritual message, which is saying no to God and no regrets. All these songs are about believing in yourself. And, you know, we want to be able to play in a free, frenetic way that deals with jazz, funk, rhythm and blues, African rhythms, et cetera, et cetera.

Hills: Mwenso's new album is called "Emergence."

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.