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Chineke! Leading by Example

Chineke logo1The Chineke! Foundation was established in 2015: it’s mission, to provide career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe. At a time when much of the news around classical music focused on laurel ts, elitism and the problems of engaging young people in a ‘difficult genre’, the organisation has stepped forward with inspiring energy.

Chineke!’s message is of real importance to young BME musicians. For these students, the orchestra offers more than the traditional outreach: It offers role models.

Learning and Participation Manager, Ishani O’Connor, has been in her role since June 2017, and has already found herself  ‘very busy!’ The Music Workshop Company catches up with Ishani to hear more about Chineke! and its work both in the community and within its groundbreaking Junior Orchestra. 

“The Chineke! Foundation and its Professional and Junior orchestras were founded by Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE 2 years ago, specifically to promote ethnic diversity in classical music. Chineke! has had a stratospheric ascent, recently culminating in the Chineke! BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, an event with a huge audience reach and the youngest orchestra in its history to be offered a Prom, becoming the BBC’s second most memorable Prom online, with over 10 million views.

This is a massive achievement by a dedicated orchestra management team​ ​but​ fundamental to the success of the Chineke! Orchestra has been the ​firm ​belief that​ mentorship and learning are key to th​e​ development of Chineke! as a cultural organisation. In this way, the Chineke! Orchestra provides the much​ ​needed role models for the Chineke! Juniors​.​

Chineke! Learning and Participation currently has a two-pronged approach to supporting the next generation; through the work with the Chineke! Juniors, encouraging young and gifted BME Classical music students by giving them opportunities to perform in the orchestra, and secondly by taking adult members of the Chineke! Orchestra into schools across the UK, to cities where the orchestra is touring, particularly in areas where there are higher statistical rates of BME communities.

Members of the adult orchestra working with young musicians in a Birmingham School

The Chineke! Juniors have the opportunity to perform in venues such as the Southbank Centre; in the Clore Ballroom and on stage at the Royal Festival Hall, but also in smaller venues such as at Hatfield House for the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival – a sold out concert coming up in October 2017.

The Chineke! Juniors’ ages range from 11 to 18, and many are on a pathway to a Classical music career. The standard is from grades 6-8 and beyond. A professional orchestra starting its journey with an associate junior orchestra is unique in the UK and demonstrates a commitment to nurturing talent which is essential, if the Chineke! ‘effect’ is to perpetuate far into the future. The Chineke! Juniors act as a bridge between current youth music schemes and higher education, giving its players experience, encouragement and confidence during their formative years, whilst increasing the numbers of BME students currently studying music at third level.

A new star has shone this year, a member of the Chineke! Juniors who played in the orchestra’s first cohort in 2015. Sheku Kanneh-Mason; a dynamic and gifted cellist was winner of BBC Young Musician 2016 and has launched his solo career even before commencing his music degree. Although Sheku’s recent notoriety is all to do with his unmistakable talent, hard work and support from family and teachers, he is a brilliant role model to many of the young, BME musicians in the Chineke! Juniors but also throughout the world of music. Sheku’s association with Chineke! is evidence of a positive start to a great career and demonstrates the confidence-boost that playing with a group of BME musicians can give. The televised broadcast of Chineke!’s BBC Proms augmented Chineke!’s reach and I dearly hope that there will be BME students of classical music in the UK and across the world who watched this stunning concert who will be inspired by Sheku and the brilliance of the Chineke! Orchestra’s performance.

The ​young ​Sri Lankan born conductor, Manoj ​K​amps guided these gifted young people whose confidence​ ​blossomed​ under his leadership​. The Chineke! Juniors, many of whom were coming together for the first time, performed brilliantly​ ​both technically and musically​.​ At the event, they also led a ‘Passenger Seats’ session on the Clore Ballroom where audience members of all ages sat next to and in between them listening. They also offered a ‘Have a Go!’ session where players from the Chineke! Juniors worked peer-to-peer, very successfully, with children of their ages who wanted to try their hand at an instrument.

In a parallel exchange of skills, the adult musicians from the Chineke! Orchestra over the same weekend mentored and supported the Chineke! Juniors during rehearsals, developing their performance techniques and encouraging them to lead the sections of the orchestra, to listen and make eye contact with each other and play-out with more confidence. I watched as the young people’s backs straightened during every rehearsal session and their concentration and involvement became more intense and focused. It was a very quick progression; the talent and skills were already there, they just needed the support and platform to shine.

Members of the adult orchestra working with students in Birmingham

In our work with schools across the UK, Chineke! L&P aims to reach as many young people as we can in regions that do not normally have the benefits of London’s large arts ecology. We work closely with venues where the Chineke! Orchestra is performing, who often have their own education programmes and music hubs or other charities who are well-connected to schools. These workshops also promote the huge benefits that learning music has to the students at a time when music education and the arts in general are being de-funded in favour of the EBacc subjects.

Recently, we took a string quartet of Chineke! Orchestra musicians into the assemblies of three primary schools in inner city Birmingham in conjunction with the Chineke! Birmingham Symphony Hall concert. The quartet played a special transcription of three of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (we commissioned from a composer), including Nimrod, deliberately relating the repertoire to the Chineke! Orchestra concert. ‘The Enigma’ also helped us to create an interesting narrative for the children as each of the variations are named after someone Elgar knew, number XI, entitled GRS, about his favourite dog falling down a river bank.

Smile! Members of the adult orchestra with students in Birmingham

We also introduced the young audience to the work of a very interesting 18th century black composer, Joseph Boulogne (aka Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges) by playing one of his string quartets and with a presentation on his life. Born of a French plantation owner and an African slave, Saint-Georges was a multi-talented fencer, athlete, military commander and politician but also a violin virtuoso, orchestral conductor and composer who pioneered the string quartet as a musical form. The Chineke! Foundation also aims to educate the audience by celebrating the work of often forgotten or neglected, brilliant black composers. Other composers which the Chineke! Orchestra has played and continues to champion include, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Florence B. Price, George Walker and contemporary composers Errollyn Wallen and Hannah Kendall.

Chineke!, works through positive action, to enact change and increase the diversity of professional musicians in Classical music. The long-term goal is to see this change across manifold orchestras in the UK and in Europe. But music critics and regular concert-goers are already observing Chineke!’s effect on audiences, who are the most diverse I have ever seen at classical music concerts. Chineke! follows a very powerful, positive and effective journey of mentorship, which can be observed in the transformation of musicians who play in the Chineke! Orchestra and the unique privilege I have, of watching the Chineke! Juniors blossom during rehearsals and when they play on the UK’s most prestigious stages.

The Chineke! Foundation models how the combination of many different levels of mentorship can progress the development of individuals but also the whole organisation. Mentorship is demonstrated through peer-to-peer learning, professional to junior musician mentoring, the conductor’s leadership of the orchestra and it is transmitted from the expert performers on stage to curious audiences. This also encourages mentorship and support from venues and funders who see the great potential in an organisation that can lead the way in addressing the issue of the lack of diversity in the cultural and creative industries, through brilliant creativity and positive action. The most striking element of mentorship, however, is the unwavering leadership of Chineke! founder, Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE and her tireless effort to get the message out there; to encourage and recruit both young and established BME musicians and to change the face of the Classical music world, through direct action.”



www.chineke.org

Championing Change and Celebrating Diversity in Classical Music

 

Twitter @Chineke4Change

Facebook @chinekefoundation


The Influence of African Musicians on Classical Music

Western classical music, by its very definition, is rooted in the sacred and secular traditions of the western world, centred around Europe. Although the genre has been influenced throughout history by folk song, jazz and music from other continents such as America and China, it rarely diverges far from its Western identity.

Much like Western music outside the ‘classical’ box, African music is incredibly diverse, varying greatly by region. There is lots of opportunity for creative inspiration.

In his 2006 book, Listening to Artifacts: Music Culture in Ancient Israel/Palestine, Theodore Burgh suggests that classical music ultimately has its roots in North Africa, in the art music of Ancient Egypt, as well as other ancient cultures such as Greece. However, there seems, at first glance, little evidence of African influence in classical music. When it is found, for example in Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, it is generally Afro-American in origin, interpreted in a western-dominated form of music.

When explored, the contribution of black composers and musicians, and the influence of African music, forms a fascinating part of classical music history.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Probably the first and perhaps best-known classical composer of African descent, Saint-Georges was the illegitimate son of a Guadeloupe plantation owner, Bologne de Saint-Georges, and his mistress, an African slave girl of probable Senegalese birth called Nanon.

A contemporary of Mozart, Saint-Georges was barred from sharing his father’s French noble status because he was black, but his father ensured he was educated as an aristocrat. He studied fencing with a famous swordsman, becoming a champion fencer. He learned harpsichord, and he studied violin with one of the famous French virtuosi, Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder. His success both as a musician and athlete made him famous, but while religious leaders were agitating for an end to slavery, interracial marriages were still forbidden, and his skin colour built him an ambivalent status in society.

Although close to Queen Marie Antoinette, Saint-Georges was refused the prestigious post of director of the Paris Opéra, for which he was considered in 1775, because two of the company’s leading sopranos objected and successfully petitioned the Queen against his appointment on the ground of his race. Even so, he was a major star in Paris in the 1770s, nicknamed “Le Mozart Noir” on concert posters, often sharing equal billing with Mozart.

The later part of Saint-Georges’ life was disrupted by the French Revolution. Although he had been active in campaigning against slavery and sympathised with the democratic aims of the revolution, his aristocratic background meant he was not trusted.

He continued performing and directing up to his death, and he was remained famous enough to attract large crowds. However, living alone, he contracted a bladder infection and died on June 10, 1799.

Commemorative editions of his music were published, but within a short time, new restrictions on blacks came into force across France and its empire. Slavery had been abolished in 1794, but was re-imposed by Napoleon Bonaparte. Under Bonaparte’s regime, Saint-George and his music were removed from orchestra repertoires, wiping him from the history books for nearly 200 years.

His profile has risen in recent years thanks to concerts by ensembles including the Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment, but he has not yet regained the equal footing he held with Mozart among classical music fans.

Embracing Ideas in the Romantic Period and Beyond

Towards the end of the 19th century, composers were looking towards different cultures for inspiration. Antonín Dvořák’s interest in themes from the ‘new world’ is well documented. His move to New York brought him directly into contact with Afro-American music.

In fact, Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, From the New World, written in 1893, contains some of the most famous examples of Afro-American themes in classical music. But Dvořák’s themes are not actually of Afro-American origin. The composer wrote accurate imitations of the pentatonic melodies, a technique which he also used in his American string quartet.

Interestingly, these compositions were pretty much contemporaneous with an emerging style of music in North America called ragtime.

Ragtime descended from the jigs and marching music played by African American bands, referred to as “jig piano” or “piano thumping”. Rags by Scott Joplin such as The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag are still instantly recognisable, and Ragtime had a lasting influence on classical composers. Igor Stravinsky wrote a solo piano work called Piano-Rag-Music, while ragtime is evident in the works of Erik Satie, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and the other members of The Group of Six in Paris.

In 1930, William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony marked the first symphony by an African-American man. The work marries conventional classical forms with popular African styles, also referencing the blues. The bass line of the final movement moves from an F to a D-flat, resembling Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

The following epigraph, from African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 work, Ode to Ethiopia, appears with the fourth movement:

Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,

Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll

In characters of fire.

High ‘mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky,

Thy banner’s blazoned folds now fly,

And truth shall lift them higher.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

The composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is considered to be the only black composer to have broken through from the Romantic era. Born to a Sierra Leonean father, Coleridge-Taylor was from Holborn, London. He incorporated black traditional music with classical music, with such compositions as African Suite, African Romances and Twenty Four Negro Melodies. The first performance of his work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, was described by the principal of the Royal College of Music as, “One of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.” Despite this success, Coleridge-Taylor’s music is out of fashion and all-but out of print.

Accepted to the Royal College of Music aged 15, despite concerns about his skin colour, he swapped violin studies for composition. His tutor was Charles Villiers Stanford. Stanford challenged his student to write a clarinet quintet without showing the influence of his favourite composer, Brahms. Coleridge-Taylor wrote the piece, and when this work was revived in 1973, the New York Times critic called it, “Something of an eye opener…an assured piece of writing in the post-Romantic tradition…sweetly melodic.”

Despite little modern recognition, his influence lives on: From 1903 to his death in 1912, he was professor of composition at the Trinity College of Music in London. However, violinist Philippe Graffin performed the violin concerto at the Proms in 2005, and the Nash Ensemble have recorded the composer’s piano quintet.

Modern Times

Modern classical music has been more influenced by African culture. John Cage’s 1940 work, Bacchanale was the first significant modern synthesis of African and Western music. It was also instrumental in the development of the prepared piano, as the composer sought out African sounds with only room on stage for a grand piano.

Other composers such as George Crumb, Ligeti and Steve Reich have explored African influences, while composers born in Africa include Nigerian composer Joshua Uzoigwe. A member of the Igbo ethnic group, many of Uzoigwe’s works draw on the traditional music of his people.

Classical music is far from reaching the limits of inspiration from African music, and it is far from incorporating the work of black composers on a level playing field. However, for centuries, composers and the curiosity of the creative mind have shown us that the more the classical music world stretches its knowledge beyond the boundaries of its own traditional culture, the more unique voices will be found.


If you would like to speak to the Music Workshop Company about booking a workshop inspired by African music, contact us today:

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