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music makers new to Sidetracks: Kanneh Mason 


by Norman Warwick

In a recent post here on Sidetracks & Detours, we previewed how the book industry is trying to ground lost to coronavirus by a huge publication list for the Autumn to Christmas season. One of that record number of nearly six hundred books published on 3rd September has been described as a moving and inspirational account of determination, music and love.

The biography, House of Music is also so much more. It is a story about race, immigration and education. It is the story of a mother and her family, shown together in this article´s cover photograph at the top of this page. And it is the story of her children, seven phenomenally talented musicians. For the first time, Kadie Kanneh-Mason opens up about what it takes to raise a musical family in a Britain divided by class and race. She looks back to 1963 when her mother, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a Welsh family, defied everyone and sailed off to join her fiancé and his family in Sierra Leone. Through this personal journey and what follows, the book charts the story of immigration, determination and hard work of a remarkable family succeeding when everything seemed stacked against them.

This remarkable mother, Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, is a former lecturer at Birmingham University and the mother of seven children. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, her third eldest was the first black musician to win BBC Young Musician in 2016 and performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Two of his siblings are also former BBC Young Musician category finalists and the eldest, pianist Isata, has also presented for the Proms.

Collectively, the Kanneh-Masons have performed at the 2018 BAFTA Ceremony and concert halls across the world and like many fellow musicians during the lockdown months they turned to performing live on Facebook, attracting huge audiences for ´concerts´ performed  from their family home in Nottingham. These precious moments of family life and music were beautifully captured in the BBC’s recent Imagine documentary.

One of the brightest young stars on the classical music scene, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, became a globally known name when he performed in 2018 at the wedding of  the Duke Amnd Duchess Of Sussex. According to his own personal web site, a global audience of nearly two billion people saw his performance.

Only four years after winning the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition, Sheku is now in great demand from major concert halls and by orchestras around the world.

His debut album, Inspiration, was recorded for the Decca Classics label and featured the Shostakovich Cello Concerto Number 1, with The City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Grazinyté-Tyla. Later that same year Sheku was announced as the indsutry´s Male Artist Of the year and als won the ´Critics´Choice´award forat the major re-launch of the ´Classsic Brit Awards´ ceremony and the following month, July, he received the new Brit-Certified Breakthrough Award.

That Inspiration album has now sold more than 30,000 copies in the UK and over 100,000 worldwide !

It was in January of this blighted year of 2020 that he released his second album, entitled simple Elgar. the music was centred around the composer´s cello concerto which Sheku recorded at Abbey Road studios with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. Reaching number 8 in the UK official album chart, it made Sheku not only the youngest classical instrumentalist to reach the UK top ten, but also the first ever cellist.

He has already played with the likes of The Seattle Symphony, Frankfurt Radio Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. So long as covid 19 doesn´t intervene he will play later in the year with The Los Angeles Chamber orchestra and the Halle,

There is even talk of a tour of the United States with The Chinekei Orchestra and a family musical tour of Australia with his six massively talented siblings.

His recital performances have already included playing in the Milton Court at The Barbican, The Theatre Des Champs Elysees, Conservatorio di Milano and a critically acclaimed tour of North America where audiences in Los Angeles, Vancouver and The Carnagie Hall in New York were enchanted by his playing.

Having already played the Proms on several occasions now, Sheku feels that making classical music to all is vitally important and as such is proud to serve as an Ambassador for music education charities, such as London Music Masters and Future Talent. He is now into the second of a two year role as Young Artist In Residence  at The Royal Liverpool Philarmonic. In this capacity he not only performs frequently in Liverpool during his tenure but also takes part in the orchestra´s education services.

Classical musical followers in the Uk are already well aware of the pedigree of this musical family, as Sheku has already performed with them  at the wonderful Evening of Roses the 2018 Bafta Awards show at The Royal Albert Hall.

The previous year at the same event he performed Leonard Cohen´s Hallelujah, with its subsequent recording going viral on You Tube.

He has also won the South Bank Sky Arts breakthrough award, following Stormzy as a previous winner and has played at Number 10 Downing Street during Black History Month.

Currently Sheku is under a full scholarshop at The Royal Acadamey Of Music. As a keen exponent of chamber music Sheku also pewrforms with his sister Isata, and his borther Braimah in The Kanneh Mason Trio.

There has also been perhaps his greatest honour yet, awarded in this very strange year as he received the MBE in the 2020 new year´s Honours List

The instrument he plays is an Antonius And Hieronymus Amati Cello, C.1610 whis is on loan to him from a private collection.

All that would be amazing as the cv of any musician but placed in the context of being one seven brothers and sisters all capable of a rare musical excellence it generates an even greater public awareness and scrutiny than would otherwise be the case. His eldest sister has released her first album showcasing the works of Clara Schumann.

family harmony

Don´t assume, either, that these must be siblings benefitting from some expensive, cloistered and privileged education. The truth is they all attended a state comprehensive in Nottingham

The new book, House of Music, written by their mother somehow explains how that could possibly have led to these incredible results. Whilst she speaks openly about what it takes to raise such a musical family in a Britain still confused and divided by notions of race and class, the book has emerges as a tribute to the power of determination, and celebrates heart-warming camaraderie and a lot of hard work.

House of Music is a gem of book, telling of this remarkable family, the Kanneh-Masons. It is, though, more a book that reminds us to nurture our children as the greatest gift (and responsibility) we will ever have. The biography is at once an eloquent memoir and a joyous affirmation of life, in a year in which such affirmation has never been more needed.

A Prom will be broadcast for free at 19:30 BST, tonight, Friday 11 September 2020. Sadly, it will not be possible to have an audience at the Royal Albert Hall for this concert.

Isata Kanneh-Mason

For this specially pre-recorded Proms recital Sheku will joined by 24-year-old Isata Kanneh-Mason, the eldest of the family’s seven musical siblings, who released her first solo CD last year to great acclaim.

Continuing the 250th-anniversary celebrations of Beethoven’s birth, his C major Cello Sonata reflects the concentration of expression and form typical of his late period. By contrast, Barber’s sonata, though written in 1932, looks backwards, its drama and lyricism rooted in the Romantic era.

After Bridge’s passionate, youthful and lightly Impressionistic Mélodie comes Rachmaninov’s post-Romantic sonata, a full-blooded cornerstone of the cello/piano repertoire whose macabre scherzo movement and joyously ebullient finale contrast with a slow movement of melting bittersweet indulgence.

for the full playing list, see below


Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 102 No. 1 15’

Samuel Barber
Cello Sonata 20’

Frank Bridge
Mélodie 5’

Sergey Rachmaninov
Cello Sonata in G minor 25’

Sheku Kanneh-Mason cello
Isata Kanneh-Mason piano

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