One of the first calls Bronwyn Keenan made upon accepting the director’s role at UB’s Arts Collaboratory in January of 2019, was to the internationally acclaimed musician, singer and dancer, Michael Mwenso, leader of “Mwenso and The Shakes.” The two know each other from working in New York City, where Keenan held leadership positions at both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim. As director of special events at the Met, she contracted Mwenso and The Shakes to be the legendary institution’s house band, largely due to the group’s joyful, multicultural vibe and its undeniably charming leader. She nabbed Mwenso to serve as one of the Collaboratory’s first Visiting Professors in the Arts, to work with students and faculty in UB’s Music and Theatre and Dance departments throughout the fall semester. He arrived in early September to shake things up.
Mwenso arrived in early September to shake things up.
It’s difficult to put a label on Mwenso’s music. A native of Freetown in Sierra Leone, his family moved to London, where he spent his formative teenage years hanging out at the legendary jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s. He began honing his talents as a trombonist, singer and performer playing in jump bands, reggae and Afrobeat horn sections, as well as hard-bop jazz sessions. At UB he’ll be working with UB’s Percussion and Jazz Ensembles. From Fats Waller to Thelonious Monk, his repertoire covers the waterfront.
Serving as a curator and programming associate at Jazz at Lincoln Center at the invitation of Wynton Marsalis, he also booked nightly sets at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, which provides his students a rare opportunity to work directly with an artist who’s been on both the management and performance sides of the business. And how many students can say their professor performed with James Brown, who brought eleven year-old Mwenso on stage to dance on numerous occasions in his London concerts.
This is an opportunity for me to help re-form and re-craft how Black art is being taught in institutions.
“Through my curriculum, ‘Protest, Hope and Resilience through the Black Arts,’ I’m leading students on an exploration of the ways in which people of color have always propelled change in the US,” said Mwenso. “This is an opportunity for me to help re-form and re-craft how Black art is being taught in institutions. It couldn’t be more relevant given current events and circumstances.”
This isn’t the first time Mwenso has visited Buffalo. He and The Shakes received standing ovations at The Colored Musicians Club 2018 Jazz Fest and future plans include a musical collaboration with Buffalo’s Torn Space Theatre via a partnership with the Collaboratory’s Working Artists Lab. Students will be involved as well as other performers. “I love it here,” said Mwenso. “As things open up for live performance, there will be opportunities to experience The Shakes in a variety of settings,” he added optimistically. In the meantime, there are a number of videos available on the Arts Collaboratory website including classroom demonstrations (see video) and performances (see video). You’ll want to stay tuned for more details.
For further information on the Arts Collaboratory and all of its programs, visit www.ubartscollaboratory.com.
Lead image by Elizabeth Leitzell
Silo City video: Brett Deneve @brettmikemedia
Classroom video: UB Production Group, Paul Calandra, Regina Ticco, and Sean Krueger