Chi-chi Nwanoku: Chineke!


The aim of Chineke! is to champion change and celebrate diversity in classical music, and we aim to be a catalyst for change in the industry.  The Chineke! Foundation is a non-profit organisation which has been established to provide career opportunities for young Black and minority ethnic (BME) classical musicians in Europe.

Chi-chi4The idea is to bring together and showcase the wealth of talent among these under-represented performers. We aim to raise awareness and level the playing field and if we can alter the status quo at the same time it will go some way towards changing perceptions. On all sides.

A significant inspiration for me was the Sphinx Organisation, created by violinist Aaron Dworkin nineteen years ago, to help young African American and Latino musicians in the USA. My lightbulb moment happened during the concert given by the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra at the Southbank Centre. Seeing the looks of incredulity on faces of people in the audience, that having a classical music stage filled mostly with faces of colour was a novelty touched a nerve. I left the concert that day knowing I had to do something to change this response… and the idea of Chineke! was born.

My next task was to sound people out and I was overwhelmed by the enormous and immediate support from across the classical music industry and government. I received offers of collaboration, rehearsal space, office space, music parts and concerts. There was a unanimous sense that it was about time for something like this and a sense of palpable relief that I was up for running the gauntlet. At the offer of a launch concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in a matter of months (!) I had a massive job of raising a lot of money to pull it off. Along with ‘in-kind’ help I raised just over £100,000 towards our costs.

It took a while to arrive at the name of the foundation, but it literally came to me in the middle of the night when I sat bolt upright and said it. In the Igbo language Chineke is an exclamation, mostly meaning “Wonderful!”. Breaking it down, ‘Chi’ means God, in the sense of each person’s unique guardian from the cradle to the coffin and ‘neke’ means creation, and the word together sums up the ‘spirit of creation of all good things in the world’. It was a no-brainer, the sentiment was spot on, so I think the name chose the foundation!

Choosing players for the Chineke! orchestra was the next mission, and would have been quicker to have held auditions, but I was not sure if I was allowed to advertise for such an orchestra! So it was a case of writing and speaking to a lot of people for recommendations that I followed up, by either going to their concerts, listening to recordings, youtube, speaking to old teachers etc, everything! The main age-range is between twenty and forty; some are older and a few still in their teens. The cultural mix is wonderful, ranging from Bangladeshi, Indian, Mauritian, Sri Lankan, Iranian, Caribbean, African. When we met for our first rehearsal I was overwhelmed by the intoxicating mix, so we bought a huge map of the world and drew a line from our roots to London. Out of the 62 musicians we were 31 nationalities, so had come from virtually everywhere!

Wayne Marshall (principal conductor of the WDR Funkhausorchester Cologne) conducted our inaugural concert. Born in Oldham to parents from Barbados Wayne is one of the world’s leading organ soloists. Violinist Tai Murray lead the orchestra and with the calibre of players including violinist Samson Diamond and contrabassoonist Margaret Cookhorn, we were in excellent hands.

Sir Simon Rattle wrote us a supportive endorsement: “Chineke! is not only an exciting idea but a profoundly necessary one. The kind of idea which is so obvious that you wonder why it is not already in place. The kind of idea which could deepen and enrich classical music in the UK for generations. What a thrilling prospect!”

Chi-chi Nwanoku MBE

Written as part of Ensemble Philharmonic

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