Europe’s First Black & Minority Ethnic Orchestra Disrupting The White-Dominated Classical Music Scene

If you are familiar with the classical music world, you know will know that many of the major orchestras and composers are predominantly white. It is an industry where minorities are exactly that, but one particular group of musicians is disrupting this arena to give visibility to underrepresented people.

Collectively they are called Chineke! and they are Europe’s first black and minority orchestra. They made their debut in September 2015 at London’s Royal Festival Hall, according to a profile on the Telegraph.co.uk by Ivan Hewitt. The classical music critic reports that the performance was made all the more significant because they played a piece by a black composer named Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Since their debut, they have done numerous performances, gone on a tour, recorded an album, and established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the classical music world. And it’s all thanks to Chineke!’s founder 61 year-old Chi-chi Nwanoku, of Irish and Nigerian heritage. Chi-chi has been involved in the world of music since she was 7 years old when she started playing the piano, and today is one of London’s best known musicians.

She studied at the Royal Academy of Music and has worked all over Europe and her instrument of choice is the double bass. Throughout her career she has become particularly passionate about addressing inequalities within classical music in the UK, which is why she started the Chineke! Foundation. Chi-chi was awarded the Black British Business Awards, Person of the Year 2016.

She told Ivan Hewitt the idea for the Foundation came about after a conversation with the Minister of Culture in former UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s government who made a remark that made her realize there was something missing in many orchestras.

“He said to me, ‘Why is it only you we ever see on stage in orchestral concerts?’ and at first I didn’t know what he meant. Then I realized he meant musicians of color. I had never really thought of myself in that way. I spend my whole life surrounded by white people in orchestras, I defined myself by what I did, not the color of my skin. But of course he’s right. How often do you see a black person in an orchestra? Almost never,” she said.

She began thinking about this issue more but it wasn’t until after attending a performance by the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra from the Congo the following year that made Chi-chi want to do something similar. She decided to put together an orchestra made up entirely of people of color. Finding musicians who fit the parameters to try and recruit wasn’t easy, however.

“I am not going to say our orchestras are racist; I have never used that word. But there is a problem that young players of color who might come into the profession have no role models. Many have looked at that sea of white faces and they think, ‘this isn’t for me’. I wanted to create an orchestra where all those people could feel they belonged,” she told the Telegraph.

Chi-chi says the increase in diversity on stage will only be seen more when aspects pf the industry behind the scenes are changed.

“It’s all about redressing a balance, and changing perceptions. We have to do that because there is a bias in the system. It’s there in things like auditions,” she said.

It’s also about the ethnic makeup of the early pipeline into the classical music world. As part of her mission, Chi-chi has also created a junior orchestra for ages 11-18 which aims to fill the gap and encourage more black and minority youngsters to be immersed in this genre from an early. age.

Along with giving a platform to black and minority classical music performers, Chi-chi says Chineke! is also about exposing audiences to classical pieces written minority composers.

“One of my aims is to encourage the recognition of BME composers, as much as BME players. In our Prom we’ll be premiering a piece by young black composer Hannah Kendall,” she said.

With their stated mission being “Championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music” according to their website, it is exciting to see how this group of musicians will disrupt the classical music genre for the better, and bring in an even wider audience in the process.

“My aim is to create a space where BME musicians can walk on stage and know that they belong, in every sense of the word. If even one BME child feels that their color is getting in the way of their musical ambitions, then I hope to inspire them, give them a platform, and show them that music, of whatever kind, is for all people,” said Chi-chi.

In case you were wondering, the name Chineke! is a Nigerian word in the native language Igbo meaning “Igbo language meaning “wonderful guardian spirit which creates good things”. You can learn more about the Foundation in the introductory video below:


 

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