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Michael Mwenso and The Shakes bring 'tapestry of Black music' to performance at Penn State

Mwenso and The Shakes
Oluwaseye Olusa
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Mwenso and The Shakes will perform "Love Will Be thee Only Weapon" at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16, on the Eisenhower Auditorium patio. The event is free, but tickets are required.

Penn State’s Center for the Performing Arts is kicking off the season with a free outdoor performance by Mwenso and The Shakes at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16, on the Eisenhower Auditorium patio. The show, "Love Will Be thee Only Weapon," is free and open to the public, but tickets are required. For information or to order tickets, go to https://cpa.psu.edu/events/theshakesSep2021 or call 814-863-0255. In case of rain, the event will be inside.

WPSU’s Anne Danahy spoke with Michael Mwenso about his music, which has been described as intense, genre-busting and fun.

Following is their conversation:

Anne Danahy 
Michael Mwenso, thank you for talking with us.

Michael Mwenso 
Thank you. Thank you very much.

Anne Danahy 
You were born in Sierra Leone and grew up in London. How did you get drawn into music?

Michael Mwenso 
Well, I came to London as a young boy with my mother, and she got married to this incredible human being called Roger Harrington and sadly a year and a bit after they met, he died in a car crash. And then a little bit after that my mother was deported back to Nigeria. So it was in that time that I was very lucky to be adopted by, he was my mother's first landlord, who would become very close to us, when Roger died. And he kind of took it upon himself to look after me, but also took it upon himself to kind of use Black music, to heal the experience. He was a lover of Black music. And he really gave me the blessing to use music to kind of help this child get through the experience of losing his mother and stepfather. So, his name was Thomas Blowfield. And he started to get me to, to learn how to play instruments, trombone, the piano. He took me to see great musical icons, Ray Charles, BB King, James Brown, and it kind of evolved from that.

Anne Danahy 
Right. And so you didn't just see these musical icons, you actually got to meet and perform with some of them. What was that, like? I think I read you performed with James Brown?

Michael Mwenso 
It probably is one of the greatest blessings of my life, to be able to see them, but also for some of them, to get to know them and talk to them about the music and to also hear the things that they had to say about what they felt Black music was and the power of it, and that it still had an ability to change your world and that we really still have many things that we can use the music to, to heal us and to help us get through challenging times.

Anne Danahy 
You're originally from Sierra Leone, and your parents were from other countries as well.

Michael Mwenso 
My mother is Nigerian and Sierra Leonean. And my father was South Africa and Zambian. And they met in London in the late 1970s. Yeah,

Anne Danahy 
How did that background influenced your work?

Michael Mwenso 
I'm an African boy. You know, West, South, East. So you are an identity of where you come from, so you live within that. You live within the skin of your blackness and your Africanness. So it's something that I try deeply to check myself about every day and educate myself about and acknowledge who I am in the world. That I am an African man. So I'm very proud of the identity too.

Anne Danahy 
You bring a lot of different styles together in your music, and it's been described as wild, fiery, genre busting and fun. How would you describe it?

Michael Mwenso 
We're really trying to play a tapestry of Black music, to play music that also deals with uplift, through songs through lyrics, but also to always be praising the ancestors, those who came before us to be able to tap into this body of work that they left for us to be able to negotiate and maneuver ourselves through the world so that we can get to our desires and dreams and aspirations better.

Anne Danahy 
How did you and your band, Mwenso and The Shakes, arrive at that goal, because that is a unique style and a unique goal.

Michael Mwenso 
It took us time, a lot of the group and the community we came from really started really at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which is where I was very fortunate to, to leave London and coming and work there through really the blessing of Wynton Marsalis. And knowing him as a young child. And really, we we really were dealing with the music as such as musicians who love jazz, but as we evolved and and as we started writing our own music, the music just started to develop into this type of uplifting, triumphant music, which we also hope helps people to inspire them to believe in themselves more. But it was a graduate journey.

Anne Danahy 
So you're partnering with Penn State's Center for the Performing Arts through their "Fierce Urgency Festival" to celebrate Black artists and diversity. What are you hoping the audience takes away?

Michael Mwenso 
Well, we hope that the audience takes away not only that, this music has nutrients for us to to eat. So that helps our intellect, our spiritual intellect, our mental health, but that also people realize there's so much more in this body of work that was left behind for us, so that we can use it for healing. We can use it for meditation, we can use it to also help us get through depression. And that's what we really want people to understand.

Anne Danahy 
So you and The Shakes released your debut album in 2019. But since then, obviously we've had the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's just changed everything, the way people are living and interacting. How have you been playing and performing over the past year and a half?

Michael Mwenso 
The virtual world has been incredible to also develop a lot of these partnerships with like Penn State, they have been very beneficial in in keeping us working in providing opportunities for us to perform in a virtual world. So that's really how we've been able to sustain ourselves and to keep busy and to keep also engaging with people.

Anne Danahy 
So your group's performing this week at Penn State. And there's a lot of excitement about returning to these in-person, face-to-face interactions. But there's also a lot of uncertainty about where things are headed. How do you feel about that, as someone whose work is meant to be in person, there's excitement but there's uncertainty?

Michael Mwenso 
Well, uncertainty brings faith. Uncertainty brings trust, beliefs. I think out of out of these times of uncertainty, the art will persevere, and forever is the notion that we have to deal with through the uncertain times. We will continue to be strong, we will continue to get through it, and we will continue to find ways to help and heal people through the music you play.

Anne Danahy 
Michael Mwenso, thank you so much for talking with us.

Michael Mwenso 
Thank you so much, such a pleasure.

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