Chineke! Chamber Ensemble

Classical music is still ruled by white people. Femke Colborne meets a woman trying to change that with her black and minority ethnic orchestra

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Chi-chi Nwanoku is an unusual kind of classical musician – and not just because she’s one of the most successful double bass players of her generation, having held the position of principal bass with half a dozen of the UK’s top chamber orchestras. What makes Nwanoku even more unusual is that she’s black. According to the Musicians’ Union, only 1.7 per cent of players employed in the UK’s professional orchestras come from a black or minority ethnic background.

Born in London to Nigerian and Irish parents, Nwanoku discovered music as a child through a neighbour who played the piano. She later went on to become one of only a handful of black students at the Royal Academy of Music, where she says she was “confused” by the lack of diversity on the stages of the concerts she went to.

That confusion carried through to her professional career, to the point where she decided to embark on an ambitious attempt to improve the situation. In 2015, she launched Chineke!, a professional orchestra made up of mainly black and minority ethnic (BME) musicians. The orchestra made its BBC Proms debut earlier this year, and this month some of its members will perform a chamber concert in Manchester, at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM).

Chineke! is not only made up of majority BME players, but also champions music by composers of ethnicity.

“It’s not interesting to me just to have a stage full of beautiful shades of brown,” Nwanoku says. “It’s also about whose music we play, and getting BME people into all levels of the music world, including management. It’s about challenging the status quo. Because unless perceptions change, we will never have systemic change. Many BME people think classical music is not for people like them. We want to change that notion.”

When she decided to launch the orchestra, Nwanoku had to look quite hard to find players. “I could count the number of black orchestral players I knew on one hand. I had to literally go on a man and woman-hunt. But the more I looked, the more I discovered that the well of talent runs deep. It’s just not visible in the mainstream.”

The reason for this, she believes, is embedded deep in the culture of classical music. ‘It’s not about lack of interest, talent or ability. It’s about discrimination. There is an invisible barrier. In America, these days, the orchestras often do screened auditions. Black people are doing very well until the screens are removed and then, often, they get eliminated.”

In its Manchester concert, Chineke! will perform music by Joseph Boulogne, a contemporary of Mozart who was the son of a wealthy French plantation owner and one of his African slaves; and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a violinist, composer and conductor who was born in London in 1875 to an English mother and a Sierra Leone Creole father. “There have always been composers of ethnicity, but they have been somehow written out of history,” Nwanoku observes.

She is hoping that Chineke! will be a step towards a more inclusive culture, making black musicians more visible and providing young people with role models.

“We know that in all businesses, diversity improves productivity,” she says. “The world of classical music is very white, very elitist. We have tackled the gender issue, but we are very far from tacking the racial issue. This is the last bastion in the arts.”

Chineke! Chamber Ensemble play Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music Concert Hall, 11 Dec (

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