SHENZI Music’s concert at Wynwood Yard on Jan. 26 rocked the crowd so intensely that, in the last moments of its set, one audience member was moved to throw her pink, lacy, strapless bra on stage. The fan, Ashley Huergo, graduated from the University of Miami in 2012, and this was her first time seeing SHENZI perform. Huergo said the restriction of a bra felt wrong in the presence of such open, genuine musicians.
“So I was like f**k this, they deserve it,” Huergo said.
SHENZI Music formed in November 2016 when then UM graduate student and percussionist Johnathan Hulett needed to fulfill an ensemble credit for his degree. He asked his adviser if he could assemble his own band and contacted each member individually. The same day, every member agreed to collaborate with him and SHENZI was born. Hulett said he was looking for something more than just talent in the musicians he asked to join.
“I’m a good judge of character and work ethic,” Hulett said. “Everyone’s talented, you know. It’s easy to find talent.”
Desiree Bannister, the band’s lead vocalist and graduate student in the Arts Performance and Live Entertainment program, has a voice that radiates true pain, joy and longing when the songs call for it.
Bassist Koa Ho, a senior at UM, surprised the crowd and took over Bannister’s role singing lead vocals for a few tunes, and he didn’t disappoint. He kept up the soul, liveliness and emotion throughout his songs. Pianist Andrew Novoa, who also works as a producer and songwriter, jumped in with smooth vocals, including in a standout rendition of groovy-sultry “Get You” by Daniel Caesar and Kali Uchis.
Conor McCarthy, the band’s guitarist, graduated from UM in 2017 and moved to Nashville to pursue music. The separation is difficult for the band because they no longer have a regular rehearsal schedule. To work around it, they tend to book gigs a week at a time, so McCarthy can come down and be there for several shows before heading back to Nashville. But when McCarthy can’t be there, members of SHENZI still play together as a trio or quartet, taking gigs whenever they can.
While some Miami locals were at the venue for a mellow night out in Wynwood, UM students filled the crowd at Wynwood Yard. Some were friends of the band members, others were part of the group’s growing fan base and others were hearing SHENZI Music for the first time.
Bella Rose, a freshman without a declared major, has seen SHENZI perform several times at Wynwood Yard and other venues.
“I really like how they fuse together different genres,” Rose said.
SHENZI’s covers are filled with instrumental solos and build up to intense drops. The seamless transitions from upbeat, soul classics, such as “Tell Me Something Good,” to Childish Gambino’s hit “Redbone,” to originals without skipping a beat always get the crowd on its feet. The genre and mood may change from song to song, but the same threads of intense soul, emotion and authenticity tie the sets together.
The band is working on a project, not quite a full album but more than an EP, featuring SHENZI originals. When Frost bands play original songs, the lack of familiarity in the audience can sometimes bring the energy down and lower engagement. If anything, the opposite was true at the SHENZI concert. They have a big enough fan base of people who know these songs well.
SHENZI went on tour for a month in 2017, playing in Miami, Atlanta, Nashville, Philadelphia and New York City, despite assembling the group less than a year earlier. Bannister said that a band like this, in which all the members deeply understand each other’s struggles and strengths and know how to work to make each person sound best, is a hard find.
“The biggest thing that I’m so grateful for is the element of trust, and I trust these guys so much,” Bannister said. “A lot of our stuff changes every night and the reason we’re able to do that is trust.”