"For 30 years, double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku has enjoyed a successful career and as a classical musician and never felt the colour of her skin has held her back. So why is she now embarking on and ambitious plan to form Europe’s first professional black orchestra? She explains all"
Perhaps I was one of the lucky ones? I somehow slipped through the net. I’m a classical musician, an all too rare black face on concert platforms among what are usually all-white orchestras. My Nigerian father and Irish mother brought me up believing that I could do anything I wanted. They never doubted me for a second, and I was surrounded by people who supported and encouraged me.
Perhaps the first seed for me was sown about ten years ago when my then colleague and co-founder of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Marshall Marcus asked if I would speak to one of the broadsheets about our next concert programme. Why? I asked - I don’t know anything in particular about it. He chuckled and told me he’d send me a link to look at, and I’d understand why. We were playing a symphony by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, an 18th-century composer who was also a conductor, a virtuoso violinist, a champion fencer, and the son of a wealthy French plantation owner and his African slave. His works included three operas, two symphonies, 15 violin concertos and more. And yet this was the first I’d ever heard of him! I was fascinated and also horrified that I’d never before asked myself whether there might have been someone like me in previous generations, previous centuries of classical musicians.
Extraordinary composers and musicians such as Chevalier de Saint-Georges have been virtually written out of history. Is it any wonder that we struggle to encourage a diverse society of musicians today and tomorrow?
I resolved to showcase the exceptional talent we have here in the UK and Europe among performers of ethnicity and so the Chineke! Foundation and orchestra was born. The name came to me in a eureka moment in the middle of the night – I leapt out of bed shouting it – Chineke! It’s an Igbo word that pre-dates Christianity. According to the traditional Igbo people from the south-eastern region of Nigeria (where lie my paternal roots), Chineke is the creator of the world.
In part my inspiration has been the wonderful Sphinx Organisation in the US, set up in 1998 by Aaron Dworkin, for Black and Latino players. I’ve worked with them on and off for a decade and witnessed outstanding musicians come through their hands.
Chi-chi Nwanoku was talking to Imogen Tilden