Published September 18, 2020
Michael Mwenso, a UB visiting professor of the arts and leader of Mwenso & the Shakes, an internationally acclaimed troupe of musical artists, will expand what was initially planned as a succinct and tightly programmed residency into a semester-long, socially distanced engagement with UB students.
“The spirit of Buffalo and UB has drawn me such that I’m thrilled to be able to spend more time here, enjoying the place and working with the people who make it special,” says Mwenso, whose program titled “Protest, Hope and Resilience through Black Arts” is a personally curated curriculum of history and music that explores how people of color have been agents of positive change and inclusion.
Mwenso’s course, part of the second year of programming for the UB Arts Collaboratory’s Working Artist Lab, is a collaboration with George Caldwell, adjunct instructor in the Department of Music and director of jazz ensembles; Thomas Kolor, associate professor of music and director of percussion ensemble; and Maria S. Horne, associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, and director of IACE International Artistic & Cultural Exchange Program.
The working artists’ lab combines instruction, workshops and mentoring that expands the possibilities of music beyond the performance and listener-appreciation aspects of an art form into arenas of social activism and awareness that can function to positively impact individual lives and entire communities.
“We believe collaboration, not isolation, fosters creativity,” says Bronwyn Keenan, director of the Arts Collaboratory. “And if we’re going to change the world for the better, we’ll need the best ideas, the most powerful voices and an entire army of creators and artists.”
That type of holistic experience forms the basis of a dynamic, imaginative approach that Mwenso brings to his art, as a performer on stage, as a teacher in the classroom, and as a creative leader in the communities where he shares his message and music.
“I have always felt and try to teach music as something that emerges from an organic folklorist tradition, and to hear it universally,” he says. “Black music, American folk music, Irish fiddle music, or anything else we might be listening to is part of a practice that has traveled through time and traveled through different people’s journeys.
“For me to be in a position to share this with UB students is a blessing.”
Born in Sierra Leone and raised in London, Mwenso says it was in the UK that he was able to meet and hear many of the performers, such as B.B. King, Ray Charles and James Brown, who helped him fully understand music and develop as an artist — first as a trombonist and later as a vocalist.
In 2010, Wynton Marsalis invited Mwenso to join Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. That experience, with its constructively intermingled elements of performance, outreach and education, inspired in Mwenso a sense of community and connection that contributed to the beginnings of Mwenso & the Shakes.
Mwenso says meeting Marsalis and being part of Jazz at Lincoln Center nurtured his music programming and curation skills, while personal tragedy taught him new ways to hear music.
“Tragedy and sadness have always been the pivot for me to find joy in the world and try to curate it by bringing people together,” he says. “Developing the group over the last five years has been an expression of pride that allows us to present black music as part of a global tradition.
“That goal has always been important, but our aim is needed now more than ever as we impact people with love, healing and education.”
Those possibilities are the great assets found in all the arts, Mwenso explains.
“The arts have been a function of humanity since the beginning of time from the ancient Egyptians to the people of the African diaspora,” he says. “In times of distress, like we’re experiencing today, we can turn to the arts to better understand ourselves in one moment, and better ourselves in the next moment.”
The UB Arts Collaboratory is a strategic initiative of the College of Arts and Sciences designed to create an environment in which creative collaboration can flourish. The UB Arts Collaboratory brings UB and Buffalo-based artists together to spark innovation and share their art with the world.
Major support is provided by M&T Bank. Additional support is provided by Savarino Companies.