Chineke! Europe’s first BME professional orchestra

Meet the ensemble who dare to put race centre-stage. Click to enlarge, view the feature in its original home via Wayback Machine, or scroll down to read the raw copy.

Chineke! BME orchestra feature by Christina Kenny for Sinfini Music
Copyright © 2015 Universal Music Group Reproduced here with the permission of Universal Music Group

Chineke! Europe’s first black professional orchestra by Christina Kenny

Europe’s first professional orchestra made up entirely of musicians of colour will make its performance debut this September at the Southbank Centre in London.

The Chineke! Orchestra and Foundation is the brainchild of renowned British double bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku MBE, who co-founded the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and serves as Professor of Double Bass Historical Studies at the Royal Academy of Music.

It was Nwanoku who chose the ensemble’s name (pronounced CHI-neh-keh), which comes from the Igbo tribe in south-eastern Nigeria. Meaning ‘spirit of creation’, the word is frequently used as an exclamation of good tidings among Igbo people (‘Chineke! Amazing!), hence the exclamation mark in the title.

Nwanoku, the daughter of an Igbo father and an Irish mother, grew up in Kent in a town where hers was the only black family. ‘I’ve always felt as though I completely belong to the country and society in which I live,’ she says, ‘and I’ve never gone through my life feeling like I’m a token person of colour. I wasn’t brought up to be a statistic – I was brought up to be who I am, and being mixed race is not part of my agenda.

‘But it is clear to me that there are many reasons why people like me, people of colour, are not coming through, why they’re so very underrpresented in the arts in this country. And I know for a fact it’s not due to lack of talent.’

Chineke! is a conscious effort to redress the balance in classical music as far as race is concerned, both in the UK and across Europe. Nwanoku recruited the members of her new 60-piece ensemble (led by American violinist Tai Murray and conducted by black British conductor Wayne Marshall) by mining her impressive Rolodex of musician contacts for recommendations of professional musicians from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds.

Although players were not auditioned, the Chineke! board painstakingly researched the performance profiles and experience of each recommendation, trawling through hours of recordings and YouTube footage before inviting individuals to join the orchestra. Finding all the necessary players was tough, but not for lack of BME candidates: Nwanoku says that the standard was so high among the musicians she approached that many were already booked up for months in advance.

The Chineke! Foundation’s mandate extends to the recognition of the achievements of BME composers as well as perfomers, and every concert will feature at least one piece of music by a composer of relative ethnicity. The orchestra’s launch programme on 13 September, for example, will feature Elegy in memory of Stephen Lawrence by black British composer Philip Herbert, alongside works from the Western classical canon.

In addition to a series of further concerts, the Chineke! Foundation’s five-year plan includes the establishment of a junior orchestra and a perfoming academy that will host residential courses. ‘We’ve got to create new pathways by nurturing the innate talent of young people of colour,’ says Nwanoku, who puts her own success down to the excellent music education she received as a child as well as an innate love of music and performing. ‘I was fortunate to grow up to be born at a time when there were music programmes in all the state schools in the country, so I had free music lessons – but this just isn’t available to kids in state schools now. Music education in this country has really become a class thing.’

A patron of the music charity London Music Masters, Nwanoku has vowed that promoting music education will form a central part of Chineke’s work and is talks with them, Kuumba Youth Music and In Harmony about the youth work of the Chineke! Foundation’s remit. One of her role models is the USA-based Sphinx Foundation, who pour thousands of dollars worth of resources into providing musical educations for children from specifically black and Latino backgrounds. Like Sphinx, Chineke! plan to hold competitions (with cash prizes) at both junior and senior levels in the UK by 2017, with the aim of encouraging more BME young people to consider careers in classical music.

‘But I’m not launching this orchestra to create jobs,’ says Nwanoku. ‘It’s more politically motivated. People of colour are used to being written out of history, and to having other people telling our stories for us: portraying us as poor black people being helped out by white people who take all the credit. That’s what we have to work our way out of. I want the Chineke! orchestra to be radical and to affect real systemic change by levelling the playing field. I want to change people’s perceptions by having an orchestra of BME musicians visibly playing at the very highest level.’

The public’s reaction to news of the orchestra’s launch has been mainly positive, according to Nwanoku – yet a ‘small minority’ of people have expressed misgivings, including some of the players who were asked to participate.

‘There are players who have decided not to play in this concert because they fear a backlash,’ Nwanoku says. ‘I’ve also had comments from white orchestral players who have asked whether selecting players based on their skin colour is racist. It’s important that people feel able to ask that question. But I ask them – when they see an all-white ensemble playing, do they ask the same question then? Of course, the answer’s no. It’s because we’ve been trained to expect an all-white ensemble. And I want to change those perceptions.

‘Greater diversity is always going to make the arts stronger and broader, more “for everyone”. We live in the world where people are constantly up against each other and there’s so much fear. Too often, people in this country look at a group of people of colour standing together and think: “That’s trouble”. Changing perceptions is so important. And what better way to do it than through music – wonderful music?’

The Chineke! Orchestra make their debut on Sunday 13 September at the Southbank Centre as part of the third annual Africa Utopia festival (10-13 September 2015). For more information about the Chineke! Orchestra and Foundation (including how to get involved), visit chineke.org.