5 Questions to Chi-chi Nwanoku CBE (bassist and founder, Chineke! Orchestra)

In the eight years since its founding, the Chineke! Orchestra has performed at the BBC Proms, helped launch the careers of renowned musicians of color, and released seven professional recordings — an impressive feat by anyone’s standards. But this fast pace is just par for the course for Chineke! Orchestra’s founder, Chi-chi Nwanoku CBE, who is also the artistic director. After retiring from a career as a 100-meter sprinter because of an injury, she picked up the double bass and forged a multi-faceted career in classical music that has included teaching double bass historical studies at the Royal Academy of Music (her alma mater), spending a few years as a BBC Radio broadcaster, and holding a 30-year tenure as principal bassist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

But the Chineke! Foundation, which includes the Orchestra and Junior Orchestra, is the crown jewel in Nwanoku’s career, sustaining her longtime commitment to promoting diversity within classical music. Serving musicians as young as 11 years old, Chineke! “aims to be a catalyst for change” by providing career opportunities to Black and ethnically diverse musicians. The foundation also publishes academic research on the state of inclusion for people of color in classical music. Nwanoku’s investment in uplifting musicians of color has earned her national recognition from the Black British Business Awards, BBC Woman’s Hour, the Commonwealth Business Women’s Awards, and many more. She received the CBE for Services to Music and Diversity in 2022, the OBE in 2017, and the MBE in the 2001 Queen’s Birthday honors. As Chineke! quickly approaches its 10-year anniversary, Nwanoku is still full of ambition, and working toward its mission every day.

How did your experience as a Black woman double bassist influence your decision to start the Chineke! Foundation?

My journey as a Black woman and a double bassist in the classical music world was marked not only by racial underrepresentation but also by gender and physical biases. Being a 5-foot-tall woman in a field dominated by tall, large men, especially as a double bassist — a traditionally ‘male’ instrument — added another layer of challenge. At the Royal Academy of Music, I was even told by male teachers that a career in classical music was unlikely for someone like me, as I was “playing a man’s instrument!” I realise all these experiences, which highlighted not just racial but also gender prejudices, were also instrumental in eventually creating the Chineke! Foundation.

For the first 35 years of my career, I often found myself as the sole person of colour on stage. This isolation underscored the glaring diversity gap and the immense, untapped potential within Black and ethnically diverse communities. Chineke! emerged from a necessity to address this imbalance. It’s more than just an ensemble; it’s a pioneering movement dedicated to celebrating diversity and enabling musicians of varied backgrounds to excel and redefine the classical music narrative. Our goal is not only to provide opportunities but to foster an environment where these musicians are recognised for their talent, irrespective of their race, gender, or physical stature.

In creating Chineke!, I envisioned a stage that mirrors the diversity of our society — a platform where underrepresented musicians can thrive and contribute their unique voices. The foundation is my answer to the challenges I faced, a testament to the power of resilience and a commitment to building a more inclusive future in classical music.

Chi-chi Nwanoku -- Photo courtesy of the artist

Chi-chi Nwanoku — Photo courtesy of the artist

As both artistic director of Chineke! and a broadcaster for the BBC and Classic FM, you have played a vital role in bringing the music and stories of Black composers to a larger audience. Who is a Black composer you wish people knew more about?

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is a composer who I believe deserves more recognition for his profound contributions to music. Beyond Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, his Violin Concerto is a masterful blend of technical prowess and lyrical beauty, showcasing his ability to create music that resonates with the soul. His Ballade in A Minor is another gem, rich with divine melodies that speak directly to the heart. This was the piece Chineke! Orchestra opened our very first concert with, so it has a very special place in my heart. The Nonet and Clarinet Quintet, both written when he was a teenage student at the Royal College of Music, demonstrate the raw and insightful musical intuition and genius unfolding. And the Othello Suite, with its evocative themes, show his skill in painting narrative through orchestration. From the first note we played by Coleridge-Taylor, I felt his music came straight from his heart, with a sincerity that touches every listener.

If I was allowed another composer, it would have to be Florence B. Price. Her work combines classical forms with the African-American spirituals, blues, and sounds of the American South to create something breathtakingly beautiful that yet has been woefully neglected until her recent revival, of which I am proud to have played a significant part. She was a trailblazer in her time, and her compositions should occupy a more prominent place in concert halls worldwide.

In recent years, the Chineke! Foundation has made it a priority to publish academic research on diversity in classical music. How do you hope other classical music institutions will use this data?

I envision this research serving as a catalyst for change, providing empirical data to back what many of us have observed — an urgent need for greater diversity. This data should be the starting point for conversations leading to actionable steps, policies, and programmes that other classical music institutions can implement to promote inclusivity sincerely. The data that Chineke! has helped bring to the fore provides a quantifiable insight into the disparities within our field. I am hopeful that other institutions will use this as an evidence base to inform their diversity initiatives. The goal is for these findings to lead to a sector-wide commitment to change, with diversity and inclusion becoming cornerstones of policy-making, programming, and talent development. Data should not sit on shelves; it should inform strategy and inspire action.

What non-musical skills do you think have been most important for you in running a successful organisation?

In founding and leading the Chineke! Foundation, the absence of a pre-existing model for what we are striving to achieve has meant that resilience and innovation have been indispensable. Facing and overcoming challenges that arise from breaking new ground is a constant. Each step we take is a step into uncharted territory, requiring not just fortitude but also a pioneering spirit. Strategic thinking has been crucial. Charting a course for an organisation that seeks to redefine norms and challenge longstanding practices in the classical music industry demands a vision that is both bold and achievable. It also requires a keen understanding of the cultural landscape and an ability to anticipate and adapt to change. Leadership and empathy are at the core of any successful organisation. Being able to listen, understand, and respond to the needs of the team, as well as having the vision to guide and inspire, has been crucial. Equally important have been skills in strategic planning and advocacy — being able to see the bigger picture and effectively communicate the mission of Chineke! to the wider public.

Understanding and empathising with the experiences of the musicians we support, and being responsive to their needs and aspirations, is at the heart of what we do.

Effective communication has been another cornerstone. Conveying the mission of Chineke! with clarity and passion has been essential in rallying support and inspiring change. This involves speaking to a variety of audiences, from musicians and industry professionals to supporters and the wider public, each requiring a tailored approach. Equally important is the skill of relationship-building. Creating and nurturing a network of supporters, collaborators, and advocates is vital for an organisation that thrives on community and shared objectives. This involves not just reaching out to like-minded individuals and entities but also engaging those who may be initially skeptical or unfamiliar with our goals. Emotional intelligence has played a significant role as well. Understanding and empathising with the experiences of the musicians we support, and being responsive to their needs and aspirations, is at the heart of what we do.

This sensitivity enriches our approach and ensures that our actions are always aligned with our core mission of inclusivity and representation in classical music. In summary, the journey with Chineke! has required a multitude of skills beyond musical expertise, each playing a critical part in orchestrating an organisation that is as groundbreaking as it is necessary.

Chi-chi Nwanoku -- Photo courtesy of the artist

Chi-chi Nwanoku — Photo courtesy of the artist

You’ve worn many hats throughout your expansive career in classical music. What is something you haven’t done yet that you would like to explore?

I’ve always thought music and technology were closely connected; thinking back to how Beethoven used to smash his way through pianos — they had to keep building bigger and more powerful pianos! In my journey through music’s multifaceted world, I have witnessed its power as a universal language, a means of expressing what cannot be captured in words alone. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of music and technology — especially how emerging technologies can be leveraged to enhance the reach and educational power of classical music. Whether it’s through virtual reality experiences that bring the audience onto the stage or through apps that provide interactive learning tools. I’m fascinated by the potential of digital platforms to democratise access to classical music, allowing music’s message to be spread more widely. These avenues can open other innovative methods of interaction with the art form, encouraging a more inclusive and engaged global community.

I’d love to strengthen the educational dimension, especially focusing on how music can be a tool for narrative and cultural storytelling. By integrating this perspective into teaching, we can begin to create a generation that fully understands music’s role in history and society.


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