Desiree Bannister always knew she was destined to sing. "Music has always been a given for me," she says. "My mom has always said I sang before I talked. She used to sing to me, and I would mumble back to her. It's always been a part of me, like breathing."
The 23-year-old vocalist is the lead singer of Shenzi, an up-and-coming, Miami-based quintet that deftly blends elements of jazz, pop, funk, and soul into unique musical amalgamations. She came to the city to attend the University of Miami's Frost School of Music. While there, she met keyboardist and vocalist Andrew Novoa, bassist Koa Ho, guitarist Connor McCarthy, and drummer Johnathan Hulett — her future bandmates.
“We all knew each other from classes, ensembles, things of that nature,” she says. "But none of us had played together in combination.”
They performed together for Bannister’s junior recital in spring 2016; then Hulett needed a credit for the last year of his master’s degree, so he decided to do a special project — forming a band. “He handpicked us all and asked us individually if we wanted to be in a band,” she says. They all agreed and began to meet weekly. “The intention was to make fun music with no guidelines.”
Their first gig was in November 2016 at Frost’s Jazz Forum, a weekly event where various ensembles perform for faculty and students. “The reaction that we got from the audience and the reaction that we felt playing together was really something special,” she says. “We’ve been growing ever since.”
Shenzi began playing hyperlocal gigs around the University of Miami, and by the end of 2017, the bandmates had embarked on their first East Coast tour. Success followed in 2018. They released their first EP, Vol. 1, in April and went on another tour of the East Coast, to cities such as Nashville and New York. “Right now,” Bannister says, “we’re hunkering down and working on our second EP and growing our community.”
The quintet has a track record of steady growth over the past two years, but Bannister acknowledges they wouldn’t be where they are now without the support of Frost faculty and students. “Frost people have been some of our fiercest supporters,” she says. “They came out to the majority of our shows. Even in smaller venues, we’d always have a really good UM crowd, which was great and got us in a space where we can start expanding.”
But Shenzi has also enjoyed the fierce love that comes from the wider population. “Miami, as a whole, has that energy of community and fights for people who they support,” Bannister says. “Even in our tours, playing in New York, Nashville, Atlanta — and we’ve had a great response in all those places — there’s nothing truly like Miami. Miami is a place where, if you find something that you love, you support it.” She says it’s a city where they see familiar faces at gigs time and again, and those regulars also bring friends and buy merch. “There are truly great people in this city. There’s nothing quite like it.”
Emerging from UM, Shenzi made connections with local entities such as Smoke Signals Studio in Little Haiti, Lagniappe, and Prism Creative Group. Smoke Signals is one of the group’s favorite places to play and like a second home to them. “They’ve created such a wonderful, wonderful space for artists, and that’s how we’ve received a lot of our audience base,” Bannister says.
Through those connections, they’ve landed bigger gigs, playing to wider audiences. Last December, the group played Smoke Signals' Art Basel event, #OurBasel, which was attended by comedian Hannibal Buress and actor Jesse Williams. “That was a pinch-me moment because we got to play before Talib Kweli, Jesse Boykins, and with Eryn Allen Kane," she says. "That was one for the books.” In July, the Tampa-raised, Liberian-born acoustic hip-hop artist Sekajipo ForthePeople opened for Goodie Mob at the Arsht Center and asked Shenzi to be his backing band, though only Bannister, Ho, and Hulett were able to perform with him. “It was a very random thing that happened, but a really beautiful thing.”
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The group has also found a home at the Wynwood Yard. Bannister laments its impending closure next year. “It’s sad. I understand as a whole the idea — venues pop up and close. The city is changing in a lot of ways,” she says. “Would I like to have a situation where one of our favorite venues is closing? No, but I understand that that’s just the way it is right now.”
Bannister doesn’t see the venue’s closure as the death knell of live music in the Magic City. “Regardless of the outside forces making it more commercialized, Miami is really resilient in that it appreciates live music,” she says. “I’m sad that that venue, in particular, is closing, but I’m hopeful that other places will pop up. The live-music scene is definitely saddened by it, but it’s not going to be diminished in any way.”
Though Shenzi was a frequent guest at the Yard and loved playing there, it’s unlikely the band will struggle to find gigs in town. The Miami community loves them, and it’s clear they love Miami back.