Chandler Center for the Arts has embarked on a new initiative to bring artists and the community closer together with the engagement of its first Artist in Residence. Michael Mwenso is an international activist, musician, dancer and educator. Leader of the band, Mwenso and The Shakes, his passion is to explore and share the power of Black music, its ancestral roots, and how it influences, shapes and transforms us generation after generation. Loyal Chandler Center for the Arts patrons may remember Michael on the main stage in 2019 in Harlem 100, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance.
In March, Mwenso and his artistic partner Jono Gasparro spent an immersive week in Chandler, meeting local artists and musicians, sharing and exchanging ideas with a wide variety of members of the community, touring Chandler neighborhoods, and visiting classrooms at Willis Jr. High, Galveston Elementary and Anderson Jr. High.
After the week’s events, meetings, receptions and talks, the residency concluded with an ancestral community listening event led by Mwenso and held at The Ostrich in Downtown Chandler. Members of the community, which included educators, artists and patrons, listened to recordings Mwenso and Gasparro had curated for the event, including such artists as Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson. Mwenso guided the attendees through the experience, sharing the backgrounds, conditions and personal circumstances of the artists at the time of recording. Attendees then shared their own emotions, images and thoughts the music they heard had inspired within them.
“This was such a powerful event,” said Michelle Mac Lennan, General Manager. “To bring new people together, listen as a group to these artists’ work, to grasp the history and the emotions they are trying to communicate through their music, and then listen to others share hear how they felt, was overwhelming.”
“When you listen, discuss and share within the safe space of a community group, the connection between artist and audience becomes stronger; there was an unspoken bond each one of us felt to each other. That is what the arts, particularly music, can do for us. Michael taking us on that journey was honestly one of the greatest nights in my 23-year career,” continues Mac Lennan.
Another highlight from the week was Mwenso’s interaction with Chandler music students.
“I could see the kids’ eyes grow big when he walked in the classroom,” says Terri Rettig, Assistant General Manager and head of Chandler Center for the Arts outreach and engagement activities. “Within minutes he had them clapping and jumping. He showed them rhythm and listened intently as they shared their own thoughts about music. The experience brought a new level of energy to our connection with the Chandler Unified School District.”
When asked what stood out for him during the week while visiting Chandler, “There were so many moments, so so many,” says Mwenso. “To get to visit with the local schools and have an amazing opportunity to connect with the young people there. We got to visit a rehearsal of the Chandler Symphony and see the creation of real ‘community music’ – people coming together once a week to build something through music. I got to visit the great work of Anni Beach, who has created this cultivation of bluegrass music with young people of color. And, the ancestral community listening, which came at the end of the week, for all of us, was quite spiritually enriching.”
“We’ve always known Chandler Center for the Arts is a gathering place for our community to come together, to enjoy performances, discover new artists and ideas,” says Mac Lennan. “But now, as we grow, we are looking for new ways that the arts and artists can impact our community in deeper, direct and more visceral ways. This first step with Michael’s residency really showed us the power of what artists give to us and what we give to them. I’m thrilled to say, Michael will be returning in 2023 as we build on this residency, finding new ways to celebrate with each other, understand each other and heal.”
Watch this video of Michael Mwenso and Michelle Mac Lennan discussing the Artist in Residency week and listen to a special episode of “Backstage at the Center” for the Voices of Chandler podcast. Stay tuned for more announcements of future CCA Artist in Residency and community engagement projects.