Das Chineke! Orchestra bei den BBC Proms

The Chineke! Orchestra – a portrait

»Driving change and celebrating diversity in classical music« – a very special ensemble conquers the world of music.

A look at the concert platform or at any orchestra suffices to confirm that classical music is first and foremost a white people's preserve. Or a look at the audience. Or a look at the concert programmes. White people playing music by white composers for a white audience. That applies in roughly 98 per cent of cases, as revealed by the League of American Orchestras in a 2014 study – even in the USA, where Blacks account for some 13% of the population (as opposed to less than 1.5 per cent in Germany).

The statistics are pretty clear. But there is less agreement on what the reasons are, and what could be done to alter the situation. It's not long before the term racism crops up in the discussion. An article in German weekly Die Zeit criticised the classical-music repertoire under the headline »The colonisation of our ears«. Other observers don't see any need to act. And then there are people who simply take the initiative.

Hear them live!

The Chineke! Orchestra makes its Elbphilharmonie debut on 26. August 2022 under the baton of Kevin John Edusei, together with the young star cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

»There needs to be more than one Black face on stage« :Chi-chi Nwanoku founds the Chineke! Orchestra

People like Chi-chi Nwanoku. The musician was born in London in 1956 as the daughter of an Irishwoman and a Nigerian, and discovered piano playing by chance as a child, before a teacher got her started on the double bass. She was actually planning a career in athletics at first, but a knee injury put an abrupt end to that, so that she returned her focus to the double bass. Nwanoku studied her instrument at the Royal Academy of Music, and in 1986 became one of the founding members of Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which specialises in Baroque music. She played in the orchestra for over 30 years, and was always the sole Black person in the ensemble.

For Nwanoku this was kind of normal, until a survey carried out in 2014 by the British Ministry of Culture confronted her with the question »Why?«. Not long after, the Minister of Culture invited her to a concert given by an orchestra from the Congo. »On my way home, I realised that in Europe too, when Beethoven or Berlioz is being performed, there needs to be more than one Black face on stage.«

Chi-Chi Nwanoku about the Chineke! Orchestra

In response to this situation, Nwanoku had the idea of setting up a foundation for an ethnically diverse orchestra and thus doing away once and for all with the prejudice that Black musicians only play jazz or hip-hop. And so the Chineke! Orchestra was born. The name is taken from the Nigerian Igbo language, and means »God, the creator of the world and of good«.

Only a year later, the orchestra made its first appearance at London's Southbank Centre, and followed this up in 2017 with its debut at the prestigious BBC Proms in der Royal Albert Hall: since then, the Chineke! has had a firm place on Britain's musical scene. And its reputation is growing in other countries as well: in 2022 it is giving the closing concert at the famous Lucerne Festival, and its Elbphilharmonie debut comes before that. No question about it, this is all a major success for such a young orchestra. But will it last? And what needs to change so that classical concerts appeal to more Black people?

 

»Setting up this orchestra is a deeply necessary idea that could strengthen and enrich classical music in the United Kingdom for generations to come.«

Sir Simon Rattle

 

Even if words like racism or colonialism don't pass her lips, Chi-chi Nwanoku makes no bones about her criticism of the way things are at the moment. »The Chineke! Orchestra was set up to combat a striking lack of diversity in the classical-music sector. Of all musical genres, classical music is seen as a medium for the elite, for highly educated people. And of course learning to play an instrument is an expensive undertaking. You have to own the instrument and then pay for individual tuition over quite a long period.«

Chineke! Orchestra Chineke! Orchestra © Mark Allan
Chineke! Orchestra Chineke! Orchestra © Mark Allan

Starting early :The Chineke! Junior Orchestra

In her opinion, the problems start much earlier, in early childhood, and first and foremost have a social dimension. It's this that prompted her to found the Chineke! Junior Orchestra alongside the main ensemble; in the Junior Orchestra, young musicians aged between 11 and 22 can gather their first orchestral experience, and prepare to study music with financial support and a comprehensive mentoring programme. The make-up of the orchestra is similar to that of its big sister: »My aim is to create a space where Black and ethnically diverse musicians can walk on stage and know that they belong, in the truest sense of the word,« says Nwanoku.

 

»If even just a single Black or ethnically mixed child has the feeling that his skin colour stands in the way of his musical ambitions, I hope to inspire that child, to give it a platform and show it that music of any kind is there for everyone.«

Chi-Chi Nwanoku

 

»Driving change and celebrating diversity in classical music« – this is both the motto and the aim of the Chineke! Orchestra and its youth ensemble. And in the meantime, several members of the Junior Orchestra have made it to a music college or won a major competition. The spark has jumped over to the audience, as well. »The people playing and the music they choose to play all ensures a pretty varied audience straight off, with lots of people in it who haven't felt welcome hitherto,« Nwanoku sums up her observations.

New role models :Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist with the Chineke! Orchestra

Someone who thinks along similar lines is Sheku Kanneh-Mason. The British cellist, who gained a large following through his appearance at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding, has played with the Chineke! Orchestra many times, and also joins them as a soloist at their Elbphilharmonie debut. Like Nwanoku, Kanneh-Mason would not describe classical music as racist or colonialistic. But he has had the experience that people didn't believe a Black man like him was capable of playing an instrument.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason
Sheku Kanneh-Mason © Jake Turney

He once said in a TV documentary that he used not to have any role models, which he felt was a handicap: »Growing up and never seeing another Black classical musician either on or behind the stage was a major challenge. If you do something and you never see a colleague who looks like you, it's complicated. For me it's one of the greatest moments when a child, maybe even a Black child, comes up to me after the concert and tells me how inspiring my playing was, that hearing me encouraged him to learn the cello himself. It's really important for children to have someone they can look up to.«

New sounds :About the repertoire of the Chineke! Orchestra

Moreover, the Chineke! Orchestra is not just bringing a new look to classical concert halls, it's bringing a new sound as well: there is possibly no other orchestra that offers its audiences such a diverse and ethnically balanced programme. Alongside all the Beethovens and Tchaikovskys, which of course the orchestra has in its repertoire too, it regularly provides the opportunity to make new discoveries. One example is Fela Sowande (1905–1987), who is regarded as the father of modern Nigerian art music. Another is William L. Dawson (1899–1990), whose most important work, the »Negro Folk Symphony«, since renamed »African-American Folk Symphony« by the composer's heirs, can now be heard in the Elbphilharmonie.

Das Chineke! Orchestra plays Florence B. Price’s Symphony No 1

In the meantime, other orchestras are also working to make the classical repertoire more varied, especially in the USA. At its forthcoming guest appearance in Hamburg, for example, the Philadelphia Orchestra will play music by Florence B. Price (1887–1953), who has become known as the first female Afro-American composer in the United States. And also by Valerie Coleman, whom the Washington Post voted one of the Top 35 contemporary female composers in 2019. All names that are hardly known in European concert halls, but which are definitely worth remembering.

Text: Simon Chlosta; last updated: 4.7.2022
Translation: Clive Williams

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