From the 1920s to 1930s, Harlem served as the center of African-American life for music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater and politics during a period known as the Harlem Renaissance.
The era brought national awareness to authors including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer and Claude McKay. Venues like the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater presented musical performances from artists whose legacies have stood the test of time: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Ethel Waters, Eubie Blake and Jelly Roll Morton. Racially mixed audiences, almost unheard of at the time, embraced the sounds and political revelry of the Harlem Renaissance.
Mwenso and the Shakes recreate the Harlem Renaissance vibe with “Harlem 100” at Wolf Trap on Thursday, Nov. 4. With Michael Mwenso at the helm, the group will deliver a multimedia show capturing the sights and sounds of Harlem when legendary Black artists made the New York City community the cultural center of the country.
Originally from Sierra Leone, Mwenso immigrated to London as a child where he met jazz artists like Benny Carter, Elvin Jones, Ray Brown and Billy Higgins. Influenced by James Brown, Mwenso performed with the “Godfather of Soul” during his London shows. Wynton Marsalis encountered Mwenso in London in 2010 and invited him to serve as the curator and programming associate at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Exposure to a range of musical influences gave Mwenso the foundation to create “Harlem 100” in 2019 with scheduled U.S. stops through 2020. Of course, the pandemic forced a change of plans. But the show, eventually, must go on.
“It’s a time when we can raise those ancestors and what they gave to the world,” said Mwenso when speaking about the idea behind “Harlem 100.”
“We can gain more understanding and a connection to that period of blackness. We need to claim the music from that period to give us an understanding of what those people went through,” he said.
Wolf Trap counts as one stop on a ten-day continuation of “Harlem 100.” Mwenso, a trombonist, serves as the lead singer and host for the evening accompanied by the Shakes, a troupe of singers, musicians and dancers.
“Not only will you leave knowing more about those artists but you will leave with a remembrance for music which allows us to give a tip of the hat to the great geniuses of that time,” Mwenso said.
Readers can enter their names for a chance to win two seats for “Harlem 100” by going to wolftrap.org/contest
All patrons, regardless of age, attending performances at The Barns at Wolf Trap will be required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test along with a matching photo ID upon entry.
Brenda C. Siler
Instagram and Twitter: @bcscomm
Instagram and Twitter: @Wolf_Trap
Instagram and Twitter: @michaelmwenso