The Chineke! Foundation “could deepen and enrich classical music in the United Kingdom for generations,” said the illustrious British conductor Sir Simon Rattle. The project is backed by key cultural organizations such as the British Council and Conservatoires U.K., and its brainchild, Europe’s first professional black and minority ethnic orchestra, will debut in London on Sept. 13.
Chineke! was founded earlier this year by the England-born prominent bassist, educator, and activist Chi-chi Nwanoku, who received the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for contributions to music in 2001. She aims to change the common perceptions about who can have access to, play, understand, and enjoy classical music.
Everything started a decade ago when Nwanoku, whose roots come from southeast Nigeria and southern Ireland, discovered Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
The latter was a son of a Senegalese slave on a plantation in Guadeloupe, and his father was a French aristocrat. Chevalier de Saint-Georges went to France when he was a child, was educated in an aristocratic environment, and later became one of Europe’s finest violinists, composers, and fencers. He gained the nickname “the black Mozart.”
Nwanoku was shocked to know that someone like her had lived in the 18th century, and she started mulling over questions she had never “given any oxygen” to before, in her words.
“I felt as though I [was] living in a bubble … I had accepted that I was raised in a very white and Western environment without ever questioning it,” said Nwanoku over the phone from London.
Later, meeting with the British culture minister Ed Vaizey MP triggered even deeper thoughts. He invited her to a discussion on the underrepresentation of people of color in the classical music profession and asked her, “‘Chi-chi, why do I only ever see you walking onto the stage? Where are all the other ethnicities?'”
And then, last year, the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, performed at the Southbank Centre in London.
“I saw people staring at the orchestra with a look of surprise and incredulity: How could there be such a thing—a big gathering of people of African heritage playing classical music together—and successfully?
“And as I left that concert, I knew I had a job to do: mostly to change the perception of what people of color are perceived to do or not to do. It is absurd in the 21st century for classical musicians of color to be a novelty!”
Giving Children the Chance to Learn Classical Music
In order to fulfill her mission, Nwanoku decided to start with children’s education and give children the chance she herself had in her school days.
She admits to having been lucky because during her school career, public schools (known in the United Kingdom as state schools) offered a music curriculum, which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher removed when she came to office in the 1980s.
As a result, now the majority of working-class children in the country no longer have the chance to be exposed to classical music or an option to learn it. Their parents must invest in private lessons or their school teachers must support their efforts.
And the working class is exactly where you will find more people of color and minorities, explained Nwanoku. So she took up the mission to work with the government to bring back music education into every single public school in the country—both primary and secondary.
“Children who have the fortune to study music do so well in other subjects and in all the other aspects of life. … [Researchers] have proven so many times the beneficial quality of learning an instrument and classical music.”
The first step in achieving the mission of Chineke! came soon after. The name is an exclamation that comes from the language of the Igbo ethnicity in Nigeria and means “Wonderful!”
In 2015, Nwanoku established two Chineke! orchestras: a professional orchestra with 60 musicians and a junior orchestra with 30 members. Among them are some of the best European classical musicians of violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, percussion, and harp.
The musicians come from a myriad of nationalities: African, Caribbean, Sri Lankan, Mauritian, Iranian, Bangladeshi, Indian, and others.
The Chineke! professional orchestra will play for the first time on Sunday, Sept. 13, in London’s Southbank Centre, as part of the Africa Utopia Festival. Among other selections, the program includes Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade for orchestra, Op.33, and Philip Herbert’s “Elegy: In Memoriam–Stephen Lawrence.”
The next step for Chineke! is to create a junior academy for intensive study programs. Already planned are one-week residential courses next summer for composers, conductors, artistic directors, orchestra librarians, and chief executives of orchestras, along with competitions, scholarships, and mentoring programs.
All of these activities are planned while keeping in close contact with neighborhoods having high proportions of Bangladeshi, Somali, and Ethiopian families.
“We have been offered various projects in such areas and are invited to be role models in these communities. It is fantastic!” Nwanoku said.
Prejudice and Fears
As with any change, Nwanoku faced difficulties while convincing people of the importance of the Chineke! project, especially in fundraising and during the selection of the orchestras’ musicians.
Three or four musicians were concerned about possible backlashes, explained the project’s founder.
Because these musicians already had a successful career in Europe, they feared a reprisal from their white colleagues for their association with the project. Some of these musicians have low esteem because of their skin color, she said.
“We at Chineke! have to take the responsibility to help people who have not had such a successful time because of the color of their skin, and not because of their lack of ability… They need help to break down these problems.”
The challenges are not only about color. Nwanoku expects that many in the audience of the launch concert will have never been to a classical concert before. Likely they think “Oh, it is not for people like me” and feel it is too high-brow for them or that they are not qualified to understand classical music.
There might also be people in the audience who want to come because it is safe to come, because people of ethnicity will be playing, whereas others might not want to come because they will think “The people on the stage don’t look like me,” so they might not feel welcome.
“I think this concert is already going to start changing perceptions for people on both sides,” she said.
To follow on twitter: @Chineke4Change