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Harlem 100 recreates sights and sounds of the Harlem Renaissance

 By Matt Cosper 

October 7, 2019

Toward the beginning of the last century, an explosion of creativity came pouring out the industrial north. Cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh and New York had become havens for black Americans fleeing the horrors of the Post-Reconstruction South. A new generation of young people raised in this urban milieu began to create works of art unlike anything seen before. Cultural production in the fields of literature, philosophy, music and fashion were the exterior signs, the artifacts of a reimagined way of being, known as the New Negro Movement, which was a bold refusal to submit to the indignities of Jim Crow. 

The New Negro Movement was a bright and vibrant reclaiming of black humanity and it was gorgeous. While this cultural revolution was happening in cities all over the country, its center was in Harlem, New York. Luminaries like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Thurston, and Duke Ellington were at the heart of this movement, and take up a lot of space in our contemporary imaginings of Harlem in the 1920s. Deservedly, the work of these giants has taken its place in the foundation of the Modernist canon.

As the year 2020 rapidly approaches, so does the 100th birthday of the Harlem Renaissance. To celebrate, and draw strength and inspiration from that moment in time, a group of international (though now largely Harlem-based) artists have put together the Harlem 100 tour. The tour is a multi-media art experience created collaboratively with a number of groups including The National Jazz Museum in Harlem and JMG Live. At the center of all this is the band Mwenso and The Shakes, a group led by Sierra Leonean vocalist Micheal Mwenso that lives at the intersection of jazz as performance, jazz as celebration, and jazz as communion and community. A theatrical event developed by the cast of musicians and dancers, and steeped in historical context, Harlem 100 promises to discover new currents of energy in the work of Harlem Renaissance legends like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday. 

Mwenso and The Shakes

Harlem 100 invites its audience into a theatrical world much like our own, introducing us to its cast of characters as artists who, when their lives are unexpectedly interrupted, begin searching for ways that they might draw strength from their influences. The process sounds a little like a seance, where the assembled (both performers and audience) reach back into the past to invoke the wisdom and assistance of the ancestors, finding purpose and meaning in the unbroken traditions associated with jazz music, the creative community of Harlem and the larger tapestry of black culture in America. It will be interesting to see what conversations this performance– which is very much about Harlem– raises in the different communities to which it tours. In addition to Charlotte, Harlem 100 will perform in numerous cities around the country, including Baton Rouge, St. Louis, and Flint, Michigan.

Mwenso and The Shakes is a collective of musicians and performers from all over the world who are living and working in the cultural mecca of Harlem. Led by vocalist and bandleader Michael Mwenso, the group boasts a bevy of talented instrumentalists, singers and dancers working in the tradition of the variety show. This loose structure allows for artists such as vocalists Vuyo Satashe and Brianna Thomas or tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman to come into the foreground, supported by an ensemble of drums, bass, sax and keys. The freewheeling energy of the work the ensemble makes pulses with African polyrhythms giving birth to sweet and soulful melodies, all presented with warmth, humor and humanity. This is performance that conjures contagious smiles while commanding the feet to tap and the head to nod. It is memory itself, come to new life in the present.

Jazz vocalist Brianna Thomas

What makes all of this really compelling is the fun of it. There is a ton of history to be absorbed here, and the team at work on the production have accomplished backgrounds (much of the band comes out of the Juilliard School) and have worked at some of the most impressive venues on the planet. (Mwenso has extensive European credits and has worked as a curator for Lincoln Center. You don’t get much more official than that.) All of it looks great on paper, but what really delights is the infectious joy of the music, the deep soul power that infuses the sound and is evident in online video of the group’s live performances. This blend of pedigree and power is exactly what heads mean when they say someone has “chops.” Mwenso and his crew have clearly done the work to build and hone their skills; they are razor sharp as a band. But the thing that pushes it over the edge into can’t-miss territory is the obvious pleasure they take in playing together. This pleasure is infectious and the transmission of it is exactly why people shell out for tickets, get up off their couches and go to the theatre. 

Harlem 100 plays at Charlotte’s Knight Theater on October 15.

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