Chineke!: A Classical Music Change Maker

Chris Gunness
Thursday, October 10, 2019

Find out how the Chineke! orchestra is addressing racial prejudice and privilege

In its four years of existence, Chineke!, Europe’s first majority black and minority ethnic (BME) orchestra has transformed the attitude of the classical music business towards race, diversity and inclusion, taking the industry well beyond the point of no return.

'Before Chineke! there was nothing like it,' says founder, Chi-chi Nwanoku. 'Today, people of colour and ethnicity are acceptable in the industry, whereas the establishment used to say classical music is not for people like you.'

After what she calls her “lightbulb moment” when she saw a well-known white musician talking to BBC cameras at a concert of the Khinshasa Orchestra to which she had not even been invited, she realised it was time for BME musicians to tell their own story. The path ahead was clear.

The next day she was on the phone to musical institutions and musicians around the world establishing a group which today has over sixty members from over 30 countries.

Chi-chi is also changing the complexion of audiences, which has been key to Chineke!’s social mission from its very first concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 2015.

'I looked out and it was like the London I had lived in. There were people of all ages and ethnicities, people who I know had never been to a concert as they’d been told this is not a place for people like you. And what makes me most happy is that they are now going back again and again, whether we are playing or not.'

The Chineke! junior orchestra was launched on the same day as the senior band.

'The juniors are our pipeline. From the get go, when we walk on stage, we change perceptions, creating a pathway, so we need a junior orchestra. I am proud to say our leading cello was the 16 year old Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Six months after our first concert, he won the BBC Young Musician Award.'

In conclusion, how would she summarise her philosophy?

'When one door closes, open it. It’s a door. That’s what doors do.'

 

Ashok Klouda, cellist

What kind of musician would you describe yourself as?

I am just somebody who loves music and has been lucky enough to have the chance to train and perform as a cellist. It so happens that I have focussed on classical music, but I think all musicians should be open to all genres of music. I love lots of different types of music - particularly baroque music, Bach mostly, fine tabla playing and Michael Jackson's music. For most of my career I have concentrated on classical chamber music, and now am one of the directors of the Highgate International Chamber Music Festival.

 

Why did you decide to become a professional musician?

On the way to school in the car my mum used to play various tapes, my favourites being the Bach Cello Suites, the Vivaldi Cello Sonatas & Concertos and the Haydn Cello Concertos. I liked the sound of the cello, but was drawn particularly to its low register, and so asked my mum if I could learn the double bass. She said that unfortunately we would have trouble squeezing it into our Peugeot 205 and that perhaps I should do cello instead. So cello it was. What do you wish new knew then about being a musician and the music profession that you know now?

In some ways I think it is probably nice not to know too much about the profession when you are a young child, it is so much fun just to enjoy the music and dream about the possibilities. Having said that, it may have been useful to know just how hard people have to work to develop instrumental skill and musical understanding to the highest level, and moreover, how many young people around the world are working that hard and how competitive the whole classical scene is. But that might have been quite a daunting prospect for an 8 year old. What drew you to Chineke!?

I was lucky enough to be drawn to Chineke! not by something, but by someone - Chi-chi Nwanoku. Chineke's principal cellist Desmond Neysmith had passed on my details to Chi-chi, who gave me a call and explained everything about what she was setting out to do. Of course I knew of Chi-chi. I think everyone does (!) and I have been a member ever since.

 

What is unique about Chineke!?

Undoubtedly, Chineke! has a very special atmosphere. The atmosphere of friendship and support and sheer enjoyment of the music is very strong. There is also an underlying feeling of excitement, as everyone is aware that the orchestra is doing something new and helping to bring about a change in the classical music world.

 

Do black and minority ethnic musicians face particular issues and challenges, if so what are they?

I think the challenges are mainly before one actually becomes a musician. I think that many people, whether subconsciously or not, view classical music as something only for a specific group of people and so do not allow themselves to consider it as something they can take part in. I believe the two main perceived barriers are class and race. There are several wonderful organisations that are trying to break down these barriers, and Chineke! is at the forefront of this.

 

What have you achieved that you are most proud of?

My wife is a musician too, and I'd have to say that surviving whilst raising two young kids and both of us continuing to pursue performance careers is the achievement that I am most proud of!

 

What advice would you give to an aspiring young BME musician?

Work hard, then work some more. Always enjoy the music, there's no point without that. And don't allow yourself to get swept up in what everyone else is doing - just focus on the music. If you do those things, anything is possible.

 

Mariam Adam, Clarinet

 

What kind of musician are you? How would you describe yourself?

I am a classically trained musician but I also played jazz and drums for ten years which unleashed this crossover element within me and so I found myself in a classical quintet. I was drawing on roots from my Latin side (mother is Mexican) and the Middle Eastern roots of my Egyptian father. Though that’s my calling card, I hate the word “crossover”.

 

Why did you decide to become a professional musician?

It was the training and the background I found myself in. There is no other way if you are going to be a clarinetist. I grew up in Monterey, California, which has a jazz festival plus I lived in New York for 20 years, where you come across composers of many different ethnic backgrounds. By chance I was a tenant of Paquito d’Rivera, the Cuban born saxophonist and composer, who happened to be one of my biggest idols.

 

What do you wish new knew then about being a musician and the music profession that you know now?

Understand the relationship with the audience and bring the music to the audience.

Had I known the impact YouTube was going to have on the music world I would have curated more much earlier and made videos and put them out there. The irony is that I love the outreach and social media.

 

What drew you to Chineke!?

I had been doing a lot of advocating and lectures and Chi-chi wrote and asked for advice on how to start a group of colour in Europe. Her enthusiasm was infectious and it was great to meet musicians I had known but in a new group. It was very familiar and I knew the struggle and what had to be done.

Most of all I loved the fact that the Chineke! musicians were soloists with fabulous careers in their own right, but came together showing that the overall goal was so much bigger than the individual and that ego does not really have any 'time in the sun' so to speak.

 

What’s unique about Chineke!?

Chineke! has became this healing place for the emotional aspect of being a lone black musician, creating a community with amazing bonds. It has birthed collaborations and inspired friendships.

 

" Chineke! has became this healing place for the emotional aspect of being a lone black musician, creating a community with amazing bonds. It has birthed collaborations and inspired friendships

There is something unbuttoned about black musicians. We get the rhythms straight away. Song and dance are so much more the daily bread of African, Caribbean and Latin cultures. The irony is that with classical training it gets bred out and so we have to reconnect, which is why it’s great that we are commissioning pieces that bridge that gap.

 

Do minority ethnic musicians face particular issues and challenges, if so what are they?

Racism I may be oblivious to, but I will say no. I have not had to deal with naked racism; Parisian snobbishness, yes. And there is certainly some anti-American racism in Paris.

Interestingly the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera House is one of the few that has “screened” auditions to the very end of the selection process and it has the most diversity.

 

What have you achieved that you are most proud of?

My collaborations with the jazz musicians Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and the cellist, Yo Yo Ma. Those crossovers have really marked me. My best playing is going on now that I am learning so much about who I am and listening to how what I want to be as a musician fits in with those around me. Every day is new discovery. There is a wonderful new evolution to be enjoyed.

 

How has Chineke! changed your life?

It has given me a very solid, wonderful community that I am proud to play with. And I love the respect and support that Chi-chi has in her national community.

I also appreciate that I can have a voice. Chi-chi listens. I am not just a wallflower, I am a participant. I am the mouthy one.

 

What advice would you give to an aspiring young BME musician?

Learn your trade well. Have good foundation. Be able to speak to an audience. Speak to them about what you do and why it is important to your community back home. There are more role models now than 20 years ago, so don’t be afraid to reach out for support and advice.

 

 

Samon Diamond, violin

 

Why did you decide to become a professional musician?

'Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but mankind cannot comprehend.' That’s a quote from Beethoven which so eloquently articulates my disposition. However, for me it's not so much a question of why but how, as I was afforded the opportunity to study music in Manchester by a music project in Soweto, South Africa. I excelled at my studies and was awarded a master of music degree and a first class honours degree both with distinction. I made the most of the opportunities to gain professional experience with some of the top UK orchestras. I think if you are lucky enough to be provided with a scholarship to study abroad, especially something you are passionate about, then it's not a difficult decision to make.

 

What do you wish new knew then about being a musician and the music profession that you know now?

Most of what I knew of being a musician is still prevalent today, and not much of that has changed. Every profession, but most especially in the arts, we undergo transformation because we are always seeking new ways to refine our craft. We must stay relevant.

 

What drew you to Chineke!?

I was privileged to receive an invitation to perform as principal 2nd for Chineke! at its first concert in 2015. The brilliance, dynamics and diversity brought in by black musicians of different cultures and ethnicity for a shared common cause of Western music for the first time in London is a real human achievement.

 

What is unique about Chineke?

It is relevant and necessary and could not have been founded sooner. It bridges the demographical and cultural divide that so many are oblivious and indifferent to.

 

Do black and minority ethnic musicians face particular issues and challenges, if so what are they?

Inherently and evidently there is a lack of diversity in Western art music for many historical and political reasons. Having said that, there are many more people of colour across the world who are involved in classical music. However, the challenges have to do with access and acceptability. Access to high level tuition, and acceptability by the community.

 

What have you achieved that you are most proud of?

I am proud of my humility.

 

What advice would you give to an aspiring young BME musician?

Time is your most precious commodity. Use it wisely.