Think protest music and anger go hand-in-hand? Not when Mwenso & The Shakes perform it

Mwenso & The Shakes are based in Harlem. Their upcoming show at Scat Jazz Lounge is their first in Fort Worth.
Mwenso & The Shakes are based in Harlem. Their upcoming show at Scat Jazz Lounge is their first in Fort Worth.

Mwenso & The Shakes, a staple of the New York City jazz scene, are known for their mix of rock, jazz, funk, gospel and blues and a performance style reminiscent of musical theater. But their debut show in Fort Worth, at Scat Jazz Lounge on Friday night, won't neatly fit into any one of those musical genres.

Instead, the eclectic group will cover the history of protest music, from Africa to America.

Michael Mwenso, 34, is a jazz musician with an impressive résumé. Born in Sierra Leone, he moved to London as a child and started frequenting Ronnie Scott’s, a notable jazz club. He quickly started developing as a trombonist and singer. By age 11, Mwenso was performing onstage.

“I discovered African-American music and went crazy,” Mwenso says. “I was enamored with that crazy genius, James Brown. I was studying him and then he came to London. I went to the gig and met him a few times in the late ’90s. He eventually got to see me sing and dance and decided to invite me onstage. For a few years he would let me join him when he came to London.”

Indeed, a video on YouTube captures the "Godfather of Soul" introducing Mwenso to a London crowd back in 2000, when the latter was just a teenager. Dancing and singing, Mwenso actually takes command of the stage for a few minutes before Brown joins him.

“I was very lucky,” Mwenso says. “I got to meet some of the great kings and queens before they died.” He says he also met other legends like B.B. King, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, and jazz drummer Elvin Jones.

For years, Mwenso toured all over the world as a musician performing with funk and reggae bands. But at Ronnie Scott’s he eventually met Wynton Marsalis and the two became friends. Six years ago, the jazz legend invited Mwenso to work in New York City at Jazz at Lincoln Center as a musician and curator.

Jumping at the chance, Mwenso quickly relocated and rededicated himself to jazz. During that time, the Shakes began to take shape as a close-knit community of about 30 musicians in Harlem.

“It’s a movement,” Mwenso says. “We are a very deep community. We live with each other, rehearse with each other, and eat together.”

After his residency ended a couple years ago, he started focusing on developing the group as a band.

“It’s my own personal vibe,” Mwenso says. “It’s theatrical, with a costume component, which comes from my upbringing of being a young performer in musicals. We present folk music with African-American music. There’s a spiritual message and it’s empowering. The way we present it is dramatic.”

For this tour, the band features 10 musicians from South Africa, Europe, Hawaii, and Jamaica. Their latest show is called "Protest Songs From Africa to America."

“I put it together to be a reflection of what’s going on in the world,” Mwenso says. “The world needs healing, and this music helps.”

The show features African folk songs, South African music from the Apartheid era, and African-American church songs, along with new protest songs from the band.

“It’s a musical humanistic journey from Africa to America to now,” Mwenso says. “We combine all the elements of protest music.”

That doesn't mean anger, though. There's nothing controversial about the group's performances.

“The world needs to be healing instead of fighting,” Mwenso says, when asked about what he is protesting.

Original songs like “Know the God in You” and “No Regrets” are positive messages about self-worth and perseverance.

“Human beings need to love themselves more and hold their heads up high,” Mwenso says. “Artists are the main protesters of the world. It doesn’t have to be controversial, but it’s strong and intense. . . . The spirit of music is the power of the gods; it’s how they speak. That cannot be angry, it has to be calm and pure. This protest is about love and nonviolence.”

Mwenso & The Shakes