Double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku is transforming British classical music with Chineke! Orchestra – the UK’s (and Europe’s) first dedicated ensemble for BAME musicians…
‘I started playing piano when I was seven – my neighbours even gave me their piano as I was so obsessed with it. At 17, I played Chopin in a school music competition. Afterwards, the head of music told me that I was the most musical girl in the school, and I could have a professional career if I took up a very unpopular instrument. He led me to a room with two double basses in it. I said to him: “Sir, I’m the smallest girl in sixth form, and those are the biggest instruments in the whole orchestra!” But then he said the magic words: “Chi-chi, when have you ever been put off by a challenge?”
The competition prize paid for my first double bass lessons. After a crash course of two years in Cambridge, I found myself studying at the Royal Academy of Music in Marylebone. In 1986, I became one of the founders of the Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment, where I was principal double bass player for 30 years. As the only person of colour in the orchestra for that whole time, I knew that I was an anomaly. But I had gone from a girls’ grammar school into classical music, so “white” was my world. I wonder now why I didn’t challenge it, but I didn’t even have anyone to challenge it with: I had no POC peers at all.
I went to the Royal Festival Hall in 2015, during the annual Africa Utopia festival, for a performance by the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste – a huge ensemble of around 200 mostly self-taught musicians from Kinshasa in DR Congo. At the pre-reception, my friend, the violinist Tasmin Little, was being interviewed by the BBC about the event. When the Southbank Centre’s director of music saw me, she asked, aghast: “But what does Tasmin know about Africa?” “We’re used to this,” I replied. “You’ve been telling our stories for generations.” That’s when I knew I had to form an orchestra for people like me.
The next day I phoned every music establishment in the country: the conservatoires and concert halls, the government and British Council. I travelled all over the country to find the musicians. Chineke! Orchestra played our first concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in September 2015 and were invited to become an associate orchestra of the Southbank Centre. Since then we’ve toured the UK, visited Ghent and Rotterdam and played at the Royal Albert Hall for the Proms. I was awarded an OBE, and last year I was even nominated for the Groucho Club’s annual Maverick Award!
“Chineke” means “the guardian creator of all good things” in Nigeria’s Igbo language. We started off entirely BAME, and are now majority BAME. It isn’t just about helping BAME musicians: it will help the whole industry because more talent will come in, especially through our Chineke! Junior Orchestra. Our cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has won BBC Young Musician of the Year, played at Harry and Meghan’s wedding, and his debut album topped the classical charts. His older brother Braimah led our Junior Orchestra; now he’s played around the world. That’s the impact we can have. As much as anything, it’s about building people’s confidence.’
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