When a royal couple have their thunder stolen at their own wedding ceremony by a teenager, that must really take some doing.
I was not among the over 2 billion people worldwide that watched the live television coverage of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. To be honest, I hadn’t even registered when it was scheduled, and we were anyway deep in the Mollem jungle as part of Nature’s Nest weekend summer camp for children and parents.
But when we got back to civilization, it was impossible to miss the hoopla around the event, with all social media abuzz. Views about the very institution of the royal family are sharply divided, of course. Many Britons (and overseas, Americans seem to lap it up more than other nationalities) are staunch royalists, but equally many aren’t. There is an amusing video clip of a stadium-full of Celtic fans chanting (to the tune of “She’ll be coming down the mountain”), in no uncertain terms, what they think of the royal wedding, to put it very mildly.
Whatever one’s viewpoint, it’s undeniable that classical music gets a huge boost at royal ceremonial occasions, be they weddings, funerals, coronations or jubilees. Through history there’s so much music written specifically for ceremonial events (think Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks of 1749, or his anthem Zadok the Priest written for the coronation of George II in 1727). But interest in classical music in general shows an upswing around these milestones. Indeed Decca Records will release an album of all the music performed at this wedding.
The cynosure of all eyes and ears around the world at the ceremony was nineteen-year old Sheku Kanneh-Mason. If it’s a name people have trouble spelling or pronouncing, it is just something they’ll have to get used to, as his star, already in the ascendant before this (he won the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year award at the age of seventeen, the first black musician ever to win the award in its 38-year history), is poised now to rise to even greater heights.
He was scheduled to perform in Los Angeles, but readily altered his plans to fit in the royal wedding performance after Markle personally called, requesting him to play.
Sheku is only one of seven remarkable siblings, all of whom play musical instruments to an extremely high standard: Isata, 21, violin and piano; Braimah, 20, violin; Konya, 17, piano and violin; Jeneba, 15, piano and cello; Aminata, 12, violin and piano; and Mariatu, just 8, cello and piano.
Isata, Braimah, Sheku, Konya and Jeneba are all studying at the Royal Academy of Music London, almost all on full scholarships, and their younger siblings are poised to join them as well. Isata, Braimah and Sheku constitute the Kanneh-Mason Piano Trio, and have already taken many prestigious concert venues by storm.
Neither of their parents are musicians, although they both played instruments in their own childhood. Their father Stuart Mason has roots in Antigua, and is a business manager, working for a luxury hotel chain, while their Sierra Leone-born mother Dr. Kadiatu Kanneh is a former lecturer in literature at the University of Birmingham.
So how did the musical spark turn into a flame in the family? I find such stories fascinating. It all began with the parents thinking it a good idea to begin the eldest on the piano. Not only did Isata exceed their expectations at the instrument (she got to the 2014 final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year), but she was the catalyst in inspiring all the siblings that followed, in a sort of domino effect.
In an interview to the Financial Times in January 2018, their mother stresses that she was determined “never to remark on the lack of black people in classical music to our children”. Perhaps this is why Sheku grew up giving little thought to the unbalanced black-to-white ratio of classical musicians at the concerts his parents took him to; this and of course the fact that as all seven siblings played a musical instrument, he never thought that “what we were doing might not be normal”.
This is the constant refrain of any journalist who’s been to their home to interview them: that there’s someone either practicing or listening to music in the house all the time, the Kanneh-Mason version of a “normal” family.
The older six siblings were competitors in 2015 Britain’s Got Talent (BGT) as the Kanneh-Masons and got to the semi-finals. They succeeded in making classical music ‘cool’.
“I think a lot of people think classical music is boring” said Isata in a TV interview, “but we just want everyone to enjoy it as much as we do.” This was also the comment of the BGT judges, that classical music, often seen by others as “stuffy”, was given “character, personality and fun” by the Kanneh-Masons, opening up whole new audiences among those who hadn’t appreciated it before.
After winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year (and now even more so after performing at the royal wedding), Sheku has come to be viewed as a poster-boy, and ambassador for young black musicians in a white-dominated arena.
Isata, Braimah and Sheku are all members of Chineke! orchestra, (which I written about several columns ago), the first professional orchestra in Europe to be made up of majority black and minority ethnic (BME) musicians, founded in 2015.
Sheku has brought the cello back into the spotlight again. Comparisons are already being made by critics to the celebrated cellist Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987), high praise indeed.
du Pré’s own siblings Piers and Hilary had this to say in reaction to Sheku’s debut CD album ‘Inspiration’ (recorded with the City of Birmingham Orchestra conducted by Mirga Gražintė-Tyla and released in January 2018) in which he dedicates a piece (‘Tears for Jacqueline’) to her: “Jackie would often say, ‘So many cellists can play technically well, but can they make music?’ Sheku makes music. He’s the first cellist since Jackie who has that natural and vibrant abandonment when playing. A sheer delight. Jackie would have loved to meet him.”
The success of the CD made Sheku “the UK’s youngest cellist to break into the Official Albums Chart Top 20 with his debut album”. Incidentally, his hometown Nottingham named a bus in his honour after he won the BBC Young Musician of the Year award, and the signing of the CD contract took place on board that bus.
He showed his commitment to music education by donating £3,000 in January 2018 to his former secondary school, enabling ten other pupils to continue their cello lessons.
If you missed all of the royal wedding, no matter. Just get online and listen to ten minutes of Sheku Kanneh-Mason for “that natural and vibrant abandonment when playing”. It will make your day.
(An edited version of this article was published on 3 June 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)