Petworth Festival celebrates young black and minority ethnic classical musicians

Chineke - credit Eric Richmond
Chineke - credit Eric Richmond

Double bass player and broadcaster Chi-chi Nwanoku recalls always being the only black person in the orchestra.

She has done something about it – and with great success so far.

Chineke! was established in 2015 to provide career opportunities for young black and minority ethnic classical musicians.

You can enjoy their talents when Chineke! sends a chamber ensemble to the Petworth Festival for a date on Saturday, July 20 at 8pm at St Mary’s Church, GU28 0AD.

As Chi-chi explains: “Chineke! came into existence out of necessity, and it was time to create a platform and a space where all these under-represented musicians, whether professionals or juniors, could play, could gain access, where they would be able to exist and get experience and be exposed and be celebrated and gain their confidence.

“I would not call it a hothouse… but it has been such a revelatory thing since the start, with very powerful results. It has just been incredible. People say to me ‘Why didn’t you do this ten years ago or 20 years ago’, but the timing had to be right.

“Chineke! is Europe’s first majority black and ethnic minority orchestra.

“I think there have been several reasons (why it was difficult in the past). But I think one of those reasons has been the poor quality of the starting points. When a young person takes the first step and starts on the path of their musical education, the starting points are not always the same. Often the quality of the teaching and the quality of the access are just not there for a lot of people. And I think it is getting worse. The government is taking music out of the state schools now, and you think that 93 per cent of children are in the state schools system.

“I think people are just not encouraged in certain ways. I have heard people talk about the low expectations of certain pupils when they are in school.

“I asked a particular horn player why there is only one black horn player that is preparing to be a professional right now. He said to me he had overheard someone saying in a schools workshop ‘Put the black kids on trombone and tuba and the white kids on trumpet and horn… because of their lip sizes.’ I said ‘What!’ I said ‘Try telling that to Wynton Marsalis!’

“And that’s just one little story. But also it is quite expensive to learn an instrument. You have got to have one-to-one lessons on the instrument, and there is also the economic divide. But we do find that in areas where there is a great ethnic minority, there are often higher levels of social deprivation. That’s not at all to say that they don’t have music searing through their veins. It is just the opportunities that they are not exposed to.”

And yet Chineke! has taken off brilliantly.

“There are a certain number of people that get the training and have got the aptitude and have got supportive parents that feel that they really want to help their children pursue something.

“Some of them have broken through the net like it is. I was always the only black person in an orchestra… and I found a lot of other one-off people that were also the only black person.”

Chineke’s Petworth programme will include chamber works by Mozart, Saint-Saëns and Coleridge-Taylor, a virtuosic arrangement of Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulenspiegel and a new work by Errollyn Wallen written for the ensemble.

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