Classical Culture
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Classical Culture

Portrait: Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE

Facing the Music in an Unequal World

Photo by Zen Grisdale

In the history of civilization, while so much progress is constantly being made, technological developments, advances in science, medicine, our understanding of the physics of the universe and time, it’s remarkable to put all of that brilliance and Nobel Prize achievement next to the realization that as a collective group, humans, and to be specific, humanity really has advanced very little.

The attempts have been there. The movements for change and progress, but there is always this huge drag, a pulling the rug out from under all that effort to move us forward into what should be an obvious positive for everyone. It happens everywhere and there has been only recently a shift towards some beginning notion of where we need to go, all of us, together.

We have missed out on a lot of what could be, what could have been. The idea, the optimistic ideal of our potential to be unified and equal is far from being realized. But still we have an endless desire to keep moving towards something better for ourselves and with each other.

Pervasive exclusion in the humanities, and particularly ’high culture’ has a long history. As a result of of Black Lives Matter we are only now beginning to see significant change in our cultural institutions, and it is refreshing. There is still much to do, and it is up to everyone, all of us, to use the creative gifts we have to make positive change happen.

One person who knows and lives this is Chi-chi Nwanoku. This is a story that shows the way towards something that can no longer wait. Tomorrow is today, and we have no more time to live in the past. There is no going back, only forward.

First Some Background — In Her Words

Chi-chi Nwanoku: I think we should talk about the light bulb moment and why Chineke! exists.

I’d already had a 35 year career before Chineke! existed — a career during which I was the only black person, not just on the stage, but in the entire auditorium. By that I mean the back stage crew, the administrative crew, the orchestra, the board of the orchestra, the composers of the repertoire we were playing — I was the odd one out as far as ethnicity was concerned.

It was also because of the age in which I grew up, the era in which I grew up as a child. My father was Nigerian, my mother was Irish. Both of their cultures were colonized by Britain. When they arrived in England in the 1950’s, they were both already British citizens. They arrived to a not very pretty picture that was painted before they left their home countries. They arrived to quite a hostile environment.

My mother was from southern Ireland and my father was from the south east of Nigeria, the Igbos people. They were just trying to get a roof over their heads. They would follow leads where an advertisement said there was a room to rent, and when they would get there, they would regularly come across a notice on the front door or the front window of the premises the house that was renting out rooms. The notice would say: No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish. My parents would look at each other, and because they had a sense of humor, they would say, ‘Oh well, we don’t have a dog, so it’s only two out of three, so let’s try.’ So they knocked on the door.

That incredible sense of humor and the love that they had for each other was always present.They just didn’t get it that people were always trying to break them up, because a black and white couple, as far as society was concerned, were not supposed to be together.

My mother’s family turned their backs on her because she was marrying: A: a black man, and B: a man that wasn’t a Catholic. In fact, my mum often said to me, “I’m not sure which was the worst for my parents; I suspect it was the religion!”

The southern Irish-Catholic religion was unbelievable. It was just unrelenting and immovable. And so they had all of that to deal with. She was told never to darken their doorstep again.

My father was an incredibly law-abiding and upright citizen who was a teacher before he left Nigeria. Education was very high up on his agenda, and big families were very high up on both of their agendas. I’m the first of five children, and one of the things that my father really instilled in all of us was to assimilate. And that’s why I was somehow able to enter an industry that actually was not particularly welcoming to people who came from my background.

That’s a long way round to saying how I ended up doing classical music. I was sort of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. If I practiced properly, and I concentrated, and I played all the right notes in the right order, then of course there was no reason why I should not do well in the classical music industry. I was not allowed to just be average or above average, or even just very good. I always sensed the pressure that I had to be exceptional in order to be accepted. I know that now in a different way. As a child, my father, he was always saying ‘Just be the best. If you turn up for an interview and you are exactly the same qualified as everybody else you are interviewing against, that won’t be enough for you to get the job.’ He was teaching us in a very gentle way about racism and how to be prepared for what life might throw at us.

During 2020/21 I gave probably a hundred talks all over the world. From Cambridge University to Juilliard to USC to Ann Arbor, Santa Barbara, to you name it, I gave keynote talks to festivals, conservatories, institutions, organizations, orchestras. And of course it spiked when George Floyd was murdered, and there was more demand to give talks about diversity and how we need to bring about a greater sense of inclusion for everybody.

That’s one of the things that we’re really proud of at Chineke!, that it’s so inclusive. What you won’t see in Chineke! are two people sitting side by side from the same background or ethnicity. You just won’t see that. You will see lots of different skin colors, majority black and ethnically diverse, and you’ll see white, and every shade of skin color known to man. It’s one of those things where, in particular, the black people will be able to see and feel that they’re not the odd one out . It’s possibly changed slightly now, that after every Chineke! Project, we would all return to being the only Black person in whatever orchestra or group we also played with, but knowing that there was the Chineke! family of musicians who were now part of a network and support system. — Now, players are very used to not being the odd one out when they come to play with Chineke!.

The first two concerts were strictly black and ethnically diverse because I wanted to make a statement and hit the ground running with a very poignant perception changer — because you can’t have systematic change unless you have changed people’s perceptions. You know we’ve all been brainwashed into thinking black people are bad, black people are criminals, black people are uneducated, black people are violent, black people are aggressive, black people can’t organize anything, and that if you see three black men walking towards you it probably means trouble; cross over the road quickly otherwise you are going to be attacked. Even black people are trained to think that due to the way we’ve been brainwashed through the news and the coverage of what goes out, the way the news is so affected by propaganda in a way. Sadly, even young black children grow up thinking that they are bad. It’s terrible. It’s also linked to the word you might have heard - ‘colorism’ or ‘shadism.’ Meaning the darker you are, the worse you are. The darker you are, the uglier you are. The darker you are, the badder you are. The fairer you are, the whiter you are, the more perfect you are, the better chances you are going to have in life. In many cases, even black people think that if you have a fairer skin-tone you are going to have a better chance in life. You see what I mean? These are deeply entrenched conditions that we’ve all grown up being taught. Not my parents telling us this but just what society, all the news tells us, in television, newspapers, that’s what we are told over and over. Watching films as a child, we only ever saw black people characterized in a certain way, you would just see the ankles and the socks falling down of a maid in Disney films. You would never see any of the heroes or heroines as black people. The Black actors would always be the servants, the followers, stupid people, the sambos — my childhood was littered with images of black people being fools and idiots and slaves and servants. Never the heroes.

We only got a television when I was about ten years old. It was littered with cowboys and Indians films. And even we would be cheering for the cowboys because they were always portrayed as the goodies and the Indians were portrayed as the baddies. I see it now and it saddens me to think that all those black children in England were cheering for the cowboys who won the battles. Do you see how warped that is? We were overwhelmingly influenced by the visual projections on the big screen, the big screen visual images are so powerful and here we were supporting the cowboys. When we used to play cowboys and Indians out in the fields and the forests when we lived in the countryside, we would all want to be fighting on the side of the cowboys. And yet we were mixed ethnicity children. We were playing with all our friends who were white in that area, yet we wanted to be part of the cowboys. You see what I mean, it’s just really interesting. Sad.

But now I realize how warped our education was, how we were all being pre-programmed into thinking and learning what was good and what was bad. And it was all pre-decided by skin tone. To think now that I’m an adult and I see how people’s life experiences are it seems absolutely insane that people of color have such terrible and disproportionately negative experiences for something as arbitrary as skin color. We always grew up knowing that we had to be better. We couldn’t just be good enough. We had to be outstandingly good at everything we did in order to get anywhere.

How would you feel if you were attacked or excluded for the sole reason of the color of your skin? For this very reason, for hundreds of generations, people have been abused, excluded, maltreated, criminalized, objectified, diminished, reduced, battered and beaten down — for something as arbitrary as skin color.

I’ve had some extraordinary conversations with people who’ve said “I had a wonderful meeting with so and so and they were black!” — as though they couldn’t believe that a black person could be someone that they could have a conversation with on the same level as them. It’s just extraordinary.

A Serendipitous Meeting

When the penny finally dropped for me 35 years into my career, I knew what I had to do.

Ed Vaizey, politician and previous culture minister had called me to his office in Westminster and asked me why he only ever saw me on the international concert platform. What he meant was: why were there no other black people on the concert platform on an international stage playing classical music?

Several months later, here is what happened. I was invited to hear the Kinshasa Orchestra, from the Congo (aka the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste (OSK)). They were having their 20th Anniversary Concert and it was being presented at the Royal Festival Hall. I had no idea that such an orchestra in Africa even existed. As I was walking to the Royal Festival Hall from Waterloo Station, I bumped into Ed Vaizey who said ‘Oh Chi-chi, you are going to the same concert as I am!,’ and I said ‘Yes, I probably am.’ And he said ‘Come with me to the pre-concert reception,’ and I said ‘But, I haven’t been invited,’ ‘Well you’re with me,’ he said ‘So you’re coming.’

When we arrived at this grand reception at the top of the Royal Festival Hall for the Kinshasa Orchestra concert, we were greeted by the director of music at the Southbank, Gillian Moore, who was someone that I had known most of my career. While we were saying hello, she clapped her hands over her face as if in horror. I immediately thought ‘Oh my god, I’m not supposed to be here because I wasn’t invited.’ All three of us started to talk at the same time, over each other. I was saying ‘Look, I know I wasn’t invited..,’ and Ed Vaizey was saying ‘Well she’s my guest and so she’s with me.’ And Gillian Moore was saying ‘Oh my god Chi-chi, I’m so sorry, you should have been on the guest list.’ And then she said ‘Look over there.’ She pointed to the far corner of the reception where another friend of mine, a well-known English violin soloist, Tasmin Little, was giving an interview into an enormous BBC television camera. And I said ‘Oh, it’s Tasmin, she seems to be giving an interview to the BBC.’ And Gillian Moore said ‘Yes, but what does she know about Africa?’

That was the moment. Here we were at the pre-concert reception for the Kinshasa Orchestra, celebrating their 20th anniversary — and now I know that the BBC and Arts Council England were making a documentary especially about the Kinshasa Orchestra coming to England and their preparation for their 20th anniversary concert. They were interviewing various people, including Tasmin Little, and when Gillian said ‘But what does Tasmin know about Africa?,’ she also said ‘Chi-chi, you should be doing the interview’. At that point, I looked around the room and saw that there wasn’t a single person of color; I went into a sort of a bubble. It was my lightbulb moment thinking to myself ‘Gillian, you haven’t invited me to the reception, and now that I’m here, you’re saying that I should be doing that interview.’ I didn’t actually say that but I did say very calmly ‘Gillian, we are used to this. You’ve been telling our stories for centuries. I’m here to listen to the Kinshasa Orchestra concert. Let’s talk about this later.’ I could sense the culture minister standing next to me punching the air, because I could sense him thinking ‘Yes, Chi-chi’s got it. This is going to be the moment Chi-chi’s going to do something about it.’ And he was absolutely right.

It was almost laughable because there I was, the elephant in the room; I hadn’t even been invited, and I popped the bubble. Certainly it was a moment to remember.

As I walked back to the train station after that concert I looked to my left, I looked to my right and thought ‘No, it’s me that has got to do something about this.’ I had seen it for myself. The penny had finally dropped.

I spent some time also looking at the audience during that concert. Some were with their mouths gaping wide open at so many people of color playing this music.This is the 21st century. It should not be a novelty that there is more than one black face on the stage playing Beethoven or Berlioz, which is what the Kinshasa Orchestra performed that night, as well as playing a couple of their own traditional pieces which were beautiful.

It was all serendipitous. It was not chance — Ed Vaizey and I were meant to bump into each other walking into that concert.

So that was a Sunday evening.

Monday morning I was on the phone — until the phone virtually melted to my face — to every music establishment I could think of. I began with the Southbank Centre because I had just been there the night before. I called the Barbican and all the principals of the conservatoires around the country, I called the British Council, I called the government, I called the Arts Council and said ‘This is what I’m going to do..’

And you know something, I could sense this incredible sigh of relief because it sounded as if they all agreed that something needed to be done and they were relieved that I was going to do something about it, because they knew me, and they all basically said ‘Come in for a meeting, let’s talk about it.’

So my first meeting was interestingly back at the Southbank Centre the following day with Gillian Moore, and with tears in her eyes she said ‘ Chi-chi, we’ve waited years for someone like you to come forward with an idea like this, because it needs to be lead by one of your own.’

Later that afternoon she sent me several texts letting me know she had been in touch with Jude Kelly who was artistic director of the Southbank Centre at the time. The day after that I had a face to face meeting with Jude Kelly who said ‘Chi-chi, I know your work. We are going to launch you and your new orchestra here, at the Southbank. We will put you on that stage and you won’t have to pay; we will market the concert and we will give you all the box office takings. This was September 2014, and she said I’m giving you until September 2015 when you will give your first concert.

And thats how it started.

To have such confidence from people like Jude Kelly, Gillian Moore, and Ed Vaizey, who believed in me, knew my work, and they trusted that I could do it was exactly the encouragement I needed. I could count on the fingers of one hand how many black musicians I’d worked with in England, and three of them were opera singers; Willard White, Roddie Williams, and Patricia Rozario. And there’s no way I could create an orchestra with three singers, two viola players, and me. So I literally had to go underground to find players. I was met with several naysayers, people who knew me saying ‘Oh Chi-chi you’re never going to be able to do this. It’s not really your sort of music, is it? Classical music.’ And I thought, Goodness, is that what they really think when they look at me? Do they think I’m an imposter? They’ve looked at me for 35 years, and now they’re telling me it’s not really my sort of music! This is exactly what I mean when I say how much more black have to do to prove themselves.

At the time I won my first principal double bass job in a London orchestra in 1984, I think it was still considered pretty unusual as a female bassist. I’ve been a principal double bassist ever since. Even after having had a good career, to hear again that people thought I didn’t really belong! I always knew I had to keep my standards up, which I constantly strove to do, following the lesson that my father taught me. So by making enquiries to friends and colleagues, I was now hearing comments from people saying I wouldn’t be able to find musicians because black people weren’t interested in classical music. They like Reggae, Hip hop and Jazz, Funk and Highlife, Afrobeat — classical music is not really your sort of music. And anyway those who do play classical music, they’re not really very good at it, are they? And I’m thinking, well how do you know all this? And so I thought, well you know what, you might say this, and just because you only know me, it doesn’t mean that other people don’t exist.

I wrote to soloist friends of mine, like Nicola Benedetti, people who play with other orchestras, if they played with orchestras that I don’t play with and they noticed a black face there, someone who looked like me, could they try and find out who they were and put me in touch with them.

I contacted all the conservatoire principals to ask them about their alumni, if there had been black students throughout the history of the college, whether they could put me in contact with them. I started researching those players that they were telling me about from their alumni, and it was fantastic! It got to the point where I was able to say to people who were all the doubters, all the naysayers ‘Well I think you might be in for a surprise, because the more I look, the more I find that the well of talent runs deep.’ What I discovered was that these people were just being neglected and overlooked. Then I said to myself we’re not just starting a professional orchestra, I’m going to create a junior orchestra at the same time, which I did. The two orchestras gave their debut concert on the same day at the Southbank Centre. The juniors played a few hours earlier than the professionals. It was amazing!

And you know what? Three weeks before that first concert (which was on September the 13th, 2015) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre, we discovered that the concert had SOLD OUT! This is like the equivalent of the Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. There’s a big hall and a small hall. And the Alice Tully is the smaller one, so we were in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the smaller one. (The Royal Festival Hall is the larger of the two). ‘Who has bought all these tickets for an orchestra that has never existed before?’ It was an extraordinary thought, and very exciting. I knew that my siblings were coming, my children were coming, my nephews and nieces, all of my book club and their partners, and all the press tickets were gone. But all of that was only about 40 or 50 tickets. So who had bought the rest of the hundreds and hundreds of tickets?

When we walked out onto that stage all together with the conductor at the very beginning, we we were met with a standing ovation.

The Queen Elizabeth Hall is the hall I’ve played in more than any other hall in London and the world — I’ve played there literally hundreds of times. For the first time in my 35 year career, I stood and faced an audience that looked like London.

And I don’t just mean because of all the different ethnicities, I mean ages too; there were people from the age of four to ninety-four; four generations of a family, literally whole families in the audience. Heads of the BBC and other big organizations were there, the Arts Council, sitting alongside people of color who’d never been to a classical concert before, because before, unfortunately, they had never felt welcomed into those buildings. They had been conditioned to think it was not a place for them to go, because they would probably not understand what was going on inside those buildings or that they were not intelligent to know about classical music and that therefore they wouldn’t understand it. How ridiculous. You could sense a sort of global sigh of relief coming from the entire audience. It was a memorable debut, everybody stayed till the last moment, and we had an encore.

They listened to music by black composers as well as Brahms and Beethoven. I loved the fact that there were people in the audience who lived a mere 15–20 minutes walk from the Southbank Centre, people of color who lived so close to Southbank Centre for so many years, yet had never set foot in the building, let alone buy a ticket to go into a concert hall. And suddenly, the sheer presence of Chineke! had cracked that door open for them. Music does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter what music you listen to, you can listen to any kind of music. It’s up to you. I don’t enjoy every piece of classical music. Just because I’m a classical musician doesn’t mean I love it all. I love other genres of music as well. I’m not trained in them, but I can enjoy them. And so, we had opened the door for all those people who previously had felt shut out from those particular buildings, concert halls and institutions. What’s beautiful is that some of those people who came to our first concert now return to the Southbank to hear a concert, whether we are playing or not. And for me, that is evidence of the Chineke! impact.

The Experience: Our First Rehearsal

I had found all these musicians. No two players knew each other apart from the Kanneh-Masons, Sheku and his older sister Isata and brother Braimah. Both Braimah and Sheku also played with the Chineke! Junior Orchestra.

When we arrived, the very first day of the first rehearsal, it was such a poignant moment. Sixty-two musicians walked into that room to start rehearsing. All these people just looking at each other, from different backgrounds, all trained as classical musicians, seeing people who looked a bit like them, opening a viola case, opening a flute case, taking the lid off a timpani, unpacking a double bass — people who had maybe walked in the same shoes you had walked in, people just embracing each other, introducing themselves to each other, because we didn’t know each other.

I had made hundreds of phone calls to find all these players. I had a couple of meetings with a few of them but we had never worked together as a group. So when the sixty-two of us walked into that room for the first rehearsal, we were all overcoming that incredible feeling of ‘Wow, I’m not the odd one out.’ It was an amazing feeling that went throughout the whole orchestra. After we had all introduced ourselves to each other and gotten over that incredibly powerful feeling, it was the first time for any of us, that when we finally sat down to play, all we had to think about was the music, nothing else.

At the concert there were people in the audience with tears running down their faces. I remember about three or four months after that first concert, I bumped into my favorite news reader, Jon Snow, (who has just recently retired); he worked for Channel 4 News on UK TV. He said, ‘Chi-chi, I was in the audience at your first Chineke! concert and I was one of those people standing on my feet crying as you came onto the stage.’ That was pretty powerful.

I did not know if our first concert would be our last concert. I did not know how we would be perceived by the public.

We had one concert in 2015. I had never fundraised in my life. We went from one concert in 2015 to this year where we had at least 40 concerts (including lockdown). These were including the BBC Proms, and two concerts at the Edinburgh Festival. It’s just extraordinary thinking about what has happened in under six years.

In the end, if it helps one person of color to feel empowered, feel that they belong and step up a little bit or to demand what’s rightfully theirs, and also for white people to commit to and believe they can be actively more inclusive, then it has all been worth the while.

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