Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Standard.co.uk: Chi-chi Nwanoku: 'We're what orchestras tomorrow will look like'

Chi-chi Nwanoku
Chineke!: The orchestra play at the Southbank Centre's Africa Utopia festival [July 21]            (Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd)

In Association With Katie Strick

There can be few people in Britain who haven’t heard the name Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

An estimated 18 million people were tuned in for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding and they saw the 19-year-old’s 10-minute cello performance of Ave Maria. More than 28,000 tweets per minute were sent during his recital alone.

The teenager made headlines around the world: reports called him a “rarity” and a “one-in-a-million talent”. But for the woman who gave him his first professional solo, Chi-chi Nwanoku, watching Kanneh-Mason take to the world stage was wholly unremarkable — because great black classical musicians have existed in Britain for decades. Everyone else just didn’t know them.

Nwanoku is a British double-bassist and the founder of Chineke!, Europe’s first majority black and minority ethnic (BAME) orchestra.

A former sprinter and about the size of her double bass, the 61-year-old launched the ensemble in 2015 and Kanneh-Mason was there right from the beginning: it was Chineke!’s professional orchestra that gave him his first BBC Prom solo and Nwanoku herself who arranged for him to use the rare 17th-century Amati cello he played on to scoop the BBC Young Musician title in 2016. Later, she introduced him to an anonymous donor who bought the famous instrument for him to use on a lifetime loan.

It was the same cello that mesmerised the world in St George’s Chapel in May. Now, at her home near Richmond, Nwanoku is unfazed. Was seeing her protégé in front of the world’s cameras an amazing moment?

“No, it wasn’t really,” she says. In fact, she says: “He’s better than that” — and he’s not the only black player producing great music. “What about all those other kids?”

Today, Chineke!’s professional orchestra has up to 500 musicians on its roster, ranging in age from 18 to 60, with a further 150 in its junior ensemble.

Nwanoku insists BME musical talent is “everywhere”: she cites 19-year-old violinist Didier Osindero,  who was recently awarded the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music undergraduate scholar award and has featured on BBC Radio 3, as well as several “incredible 13-year-olds who are seriously going to go places”. “Just because you don’t know these people, don’t assume that they don’t exist.”

Three years ago, Nwanoku didn’t know they existed herself. Growing up in an Irish-Nigerian family in Kent and Berkshire, white was her norm. “My mum was white, I always had white friends. I didn’t have black conversations with anyone.”

The first time she experienced racism was aged seven when she was punched and called a wog in the school playground but Nwanoku said she was “too busy” to let it bother her. Aged seven, she discovered the piano at a neighbour’s house. It was a “natural” love affair: her mother took an extra job to get her piano lessons and a week later, that neighbour, Mrs B, “wheeled the piano up the road and gave it to me”. Thirty years later, Mrs B watched from her wheelchair as Nwanoku got an MBE for services to music in the Queen’s 2001 birthday honours. (Nwanoku was awarded an OBE in 2017.)

The “pin-drop” moment came a whole decade later, after a conversation with then culture minister Ed Vaizey. “He wanted to know why I was the only person that he saw regularly on the international concert platform.” She was confused at first. “Then he spelt out what he meant: the only person of colour,” says Nwanoku.

That comment planted a seed, but it wasn’t until she was at a concert by Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra from the Democratic Republic of Congo the following year that the “blinding” epiphany came. “The person sitting next to me was talking about the flute player and how, before our flute player had sat there with them, they just didn’t know how to breathe. I said: ‘Come on, they’ve been breathing all their lives and they’re a self-taught orchestra. How can you take all the credit?’ I was shocked.”

After the concert Nwanoku was walking back to Waterloo station on her own. “I looked to my right and I looked to my left and I thought no, I have to do this. This is the 21st century: it should not be a novelty or a surprise to see one black face on a stage playing Beethoven to such a high standard. I was shocked that I hadn’t thought of it before. I realised that I was being prepared for this all my life.”

The next morning, Nwanoku was on the phone to heads of every classical music institution she knew. “They all said, ‘Come in tomorrow’,” but building an orchestra from scratch was no easy feat: she didn’t hold auditions so finding players was down to extensive research and speaking to each one for an hour on the phone. “The more I looked and searched, the more I found that the well of talent runs deep.”  

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