Arts, society & culture

Orchestral identity

Underrepresentation of BME musicians in the classical music world is a major problem. Abi Millar speaks to renowned double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, founder of the Chineke! Foundation, to find out how participation can be increased. 

On 13th September 2015, the newly formed Chineke! Orchestra filed onto stage at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Met with a standing ovation, they sprang straight into action, treating the audience to Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Ballade in A minor. What followed was a launch concert like no other. According to the five star review in the Guardian, this was “not merely the beginning of something culturally inspiring, but a musical event of genuine artistic value.”

For an eavesdropper listening behind the door, the musical artistry would have been obvious. Less so what this concert represented: this was the first ever black and minority ethnic (BME) orchestra in Europe. Each one of the 62 musicians (and a sizeable proportion of the audience) was non-white.

“There were Londoners who came to our concert, people of colour, who’d never stepped foot inside the Southbank Centre before,” says Chi-chi Nwanoku, Chineke!’s founder and artistic director. “They’d been brainwashed into thinking they wouldn’t like Beethoven, but they left having heard a Beethoven symphony and loving it.”

Herself a renowned double bassist, Chi-chi had spent many years as the exception that proves the rule. In an industry dominated by the white and privately educated, she was very often the only person of colour in the room. Chineke!, then, marked a real watershed moment; the first time the usual patterns had been reversed.

“Currently around 15% of the UK population identifies as non-white, and when you get into the cities – the great crucibles of our leading arts and culture venues – it’s much higher,” she points out. “Yet BME people make up only 1.6% of our orchestras, and 6-9% of those graduating from music college. Chineke! has shone a light on an area that was completely overlooked.”

Chi-chi’s own story is one of determination and hard work. Born in 1956, the eldest daughter of an Irish mother and Nigerian father, she started playing the piano aged seven, and displayed obvious talent from the outset. However, her childhood focus was athletics. After being scouted by a sprinting coach at the age of eight, she was being prepped for big things, and was on course to represent the country in the Olympics.

Unfortunately, a serious knee injury at 17 was to force a change of direction.

“I was playing in a women’s football match in Reading, and as soon as I got the ball I was off like a whippet,” she recalls. “The other team gave a deliberate blow to my right leg as I was sprinting – it was career-ending in a split second.”

The door had been shut for good on athletics. However, the young Chi-chi had barely paused to grieve her loss before another door was flung open.

“The day I walked back into school, the head of music fell into step with me and told me the whole school was devastated about what had happened,” she explains. “He said, ‘the headmistress and I think you’re probably the most musical girl in the school, we think you could have a career in music if you took up an unpopular orchestral instrument!’. He took me into a room with a double bass. I shrieked and said, ‘but I’m only five foot tall’, and he said, ‘yes, but when have you ever been put off by a challenge?’”

Having recently won the school music competition, Chi-chi was eligible for free music lessons on an instrument of her choice, and she put them to good use. Over the course of two and a half years, she went from never having held a bow before to being accepted into the Royal Academy of Music.

Describing herself as the ‘wildcard – I got in by the skin of my teeth’, she channeled her athlete’s discipline into becoming a double bass prodigy. Music had always held a sort of magnetism for Chi-chi, and the rest is history.

“I won four scholarships and went to study with Franco Petracchi in Rome, and then I got my first principal job with the London Mozart Players,” she says. “I was a founder member of Endymion Ensemble, and then a founder member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, where I was principal double bass player for 30 years until I founded Chineke!. I also created the ABO/RBS Salomon Prize for the unsung heroes of British orchestras.”

Despite recording a solo and several acclaimed chamber music albums, she maintains that her career’s standout moments have been collaborations with others. Her conversation is peppered with well-known names, from Ivan Fischer to Sir Simon Rattle.

Throughout this time, however, there was an elephant in the room – the almost total absence of other BME musicians.

“I never defined myself by the colour of my skin – I’m a musician, and I was just getting on with the work I had to do,” she says. “But of course I always knew I was ethnically different from all my colleagues.

The diversity problem came to the forefront of her mind in September 2014. It was the 10th anniversary concert of the Kinshasa Orchestra from the Congo, and Chi-chi was at the reception. Here, she noticed the violinist Tasmin Little giving an interview to the BBC. Gillian Moore, director of music at the Southbank Centre, clapped a hand to her mouth, embarrassed. Not only had Chi-chi been left off the guest list, but she’d been overlooked in favour of a white woman to speak about Africa.

“That was the lightbulb moment. The world stood still for a few seconds,” says Chi-chi. “I said don’t worry Gillian, we’re used to this, you’ve been telling our story for centuries. Later, as I left Festival Hall I looked to my right and left and realised I was the person of colour in the UK who’s had the most notable classical music career. I realised this was my calling. I hadn’t even reached Waterloo Station and I knew what I had to do.”

The next morning she called round all the UK conservatoires and announced her intention to form a BME orchestra. Just 12 months later, the Chineke! Orchestra made their debut. (The word Chineke! is an exclamation used in the Igbo language of southeastern Nigeria.)

Finding the musicians wasn’t easy, as Chi-chi knew very few BME musicians personally. Through an intensive research process, she recruited 62 musicians from the UK and beyond, all the while raising major funds. One template to follow was the Sphinx Organization, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping Black and Latino musicians in the US. Otherwise, her project was near unprecedented.

“Music is something that’s pouring out of people of colour’s veins, so I didn’t know why I was in such a minority,” says Chi-chi. “I realised that before you can get systematic change you need to change people’s perceptions, so I knew I needed to find an orchestra. But then I thought, what then? I realised we needed a pipeline.”

The result was the Chineke! Junior Orchestra, comprising 40 young BME musicians. (One of its standout talents was Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who in 2016 became the first black child to win BBC Young Musician of the Year.) The idea is that senior players act as mentors to the juniors, giving them examples to follow that their own generation sorely lacked.

Already there are signs that the Foundation is acting as a catalyst for change. Following on from Kanneh-Mason’s victory, no fewer than five Chineke! juniors reached category finals in the subsequent BBC Young Musician of the Year. Chi-chi has been inundated with emails from parents, stating their child will now become a classical musician and regretting they didn’t follow this path themselves. Then there’s the fact that other orchestras are catching a wake-up call.

“What I have been observing over the last five to ten years is more and more orchestras competing for smaller and smaller dying-off audiences,” says Chi-chi. “I’m sorry, if you keep repeating the same music with the same players playing the same way, it’s not evolving. We’re bringing fresh looking people, fresh repertoire alongside the great canon, and we’ve commissioned at least six living black composers.”

Since it was founded, Chineke! has gone from strength to strength. The orchestra was given a televised BBC Prom in 2017, described in the Guardian as ‘arguably one of the most important concerts that the Proms have ever hosted’. It has become a resident orchestra at the Southbank Centre, made its first commercial recording, and evolved from being all BME to majority BME, in a spirit of inclusion. Soon to come are European and US tours, and an ambitious pipeline of concerts.

For Chi-chi, the mission statement is simple: music is for all, not just a privileged few. Decrying the funding cuts in state schools, she thinks all children should be given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument.

“Early access right from the very beginning is key – access and opportunity,” she says. “I truly believe in equity above equality, meaning I believe every child should be given what they need in order to succeed – don’t give the privileged child the same as the child who has nothing.”

For those at the professional level, she believes screened auditions might prove a useful way forward. This helps fend against unconscious bias (not just against BME people, but also against women). Ultimately, though, true change will need to run deeper than that. And she hopes that through Chineke!, the tide is starting to turn.

“I realise I’m the first woman and certainly the first black woman to have a principal double bass job in a London orchestra (possibly in the world) in history,” she says. “It’s funny because I’ve just gone through my life getting on and doing things because I see them and throw myself at them, but I’ve only just noticed I’ve made a few firsts actually. Me – five foot nothing, mixed race, female, playing a double bass.”

For today’s young BME classical musicians, there will doubtless be a better-trodden path to follow.

This article appears in the March-May 2019 edition of Overseas magazine 

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