Chineke Meh! A Black orchestra?!

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If I chose a black person at random and asked them what they knew about classical music, I would expect to get a vague and generic answer probably just mentioning the names of a few dead white men-  Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. Of course, there are those already very invested in classical music, and that is only set to increase due to to the incredible Chineke! Orchestra, Europe’s first majority BME orchestra.

The Chineke! Orchestra is one of two amazing orchestras that are part of the Chineke! Foundation. Chineke [pronounced: chi-nay-kay] is the Igbo word for God, and is often commonly used as an expression of surprise such as saying “Oh my God!”. This makes it a very appropriate name, reflecting the surprise I have seen from other black friends at the existence of a majority BME orchestra. The foundation was founded in 2015 by Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, it seeks to increase the representation of BME musicians in orchestras by “championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music”. You might have caught performing in Bristol back in April of this year, or more recently, as I did, in November at St George’s Concert hall in Bristol. The orchestra brings together talented musicians from across Europe dazzling audiences with performances that feature black composers, such as Joseph Boulogne Chevalier Saint-Georges, the 18th-century composer and revolutionary born to a white slave owner and black female slave, as well as that of contemporary black composer Errollyn Wallen MBE. If you’ve missed the orchestra’s previous performances in Bristol, you can see them again in 2018 as they will be undertaking a residency at St George’s with performances happening through the year.

The Chineke! Orchestra  works closely with its counterpart the Chineke! Junior Orchestra, for 11-18 year old BME musicians. Allowing young musicians to gain the experience and confidence they need to succeed has led to many of them entry into top music schools. With enough time and support, the foundation’s aim to increase BME representation can be achieved. The success of the Chineke! Foundation cannot be separated from its equally incredible founder, and artistic and creative director Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE. A musician herself, ex-sprinter, broadcaster and advocate for music education, Chi-chi is often described as being ‘half the size of her double-bass’. This imagery is not only accurate but powerful as it signifies the strength and determination that is evident throughout her illustrious career.

As the eldest of 5 children from Igbo-Nigerian and Irish parents, she discovered her passion for music at 7 years old when a neighbour taught her to play the piano. She was selected by an athletics coach to train as a 100-metre sprinter, rising to compete at the national level. When her athletics career ended due to an injury, she went on to pursue music at the Royal Academy of Music and her career has flourished ever since. From being a founding member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for 30 years, to becoming a professor of Double Bass Historical Studies at the Royal Academy of Music, and even presenting for BBC Radio 3 for 4 years ‘Radio 3 Requests’ show for four years. It is no wonder Chi-chi’s impressive career has been immortalised in the 2012 documentary by Barrie Gavin titled ‘Tales from the Bass Line’. Her most recent work, besides touring with the Chineke! Orchestra, was a documentary on Samuel Coleridge Taylor on Sky Arts which was broadcast in November.

I was honoured to get a quick interview with the incredibly busy Chi-chi at the show, where I asked about her views on universities’ role in increasing diversity within classical music. There she emphasised the importance of education in increasing representation in orchestras, not only in children’s early years but also at higher levels. Her commitment to education is evident in The Chineke! Bristol Outreach Project, where the talented Chineke! musicians visit primary schools in some of Bristol’s most deprived areas. The project aims to inspire the students through music and education with a presentation on the black composer Joseph Boulogne.

It is an unsurprising shame to see that the University of Bristol, which has various schemes to increase the participation of underrepresented student groups in subjects such as Law or Engineering has no such similar scheme for music courses. The issue of diversity in classical music stems from wider societal issues, such as the disregard for the arts in the national curriculum, it is not for universities alone to solve. Nevertheless, the underrepresentation of minority groups within any aspect of education is something I believe universities should actively seek to redress. Universities such as Bristol could easily commit some of their abundant resources to supporting or creating initiatives such as the Chineke! Bristol Outreach Project, and in the words of Chi-chi Nwanoku show that “music, of whatever kind, is for all people”.

Listen to the Chineke! Orchestra performance on BBC3 here:

The concert highlights and audience interviews will also be broadcast on Ujima Radio from 12-2pm 22nd Friday 2017


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