The Ethnic Orchestra: Changing the Tone of Classical Music

by Greg Langley

Chi-chi Nwanoku built Europe's first majority black and minority ethnic orchestra from scratch and in record time

It was the incredulity etched across the faces of the almost all-white audience that galvanised Chi-chi Nwanoku. “Here we are in the 21st century,” she exclaimed, “and the reaction is still amazement that black musicians could play Beethoven to such high standard.”

That 2014 performance of the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra from the Democratic Republic of Congo was an epiphany for Chi-chi, one of the finest exponents of the double bass today. For more than 30 years, her career flourished, awards accumulated, and she never felt her skin colour held her back.

Walking back to Waterloo station that night, she recalled Ed Vaizey, then Minister for Culture, once ask her why she was the all too rare black face on concert platforms.

“I realised then what he meant. I felt my entire life had been preparation for that moment,” she explains. Growing up as the eldest daughter of a Nigerian father and an Irish mother in Kent, Chi-chi knew nothing but love and encouragement, however her world was dominated by one tone. “My mum was white, I always had white friends. I didn’t have black conversations with anyone outside of my home,” she reflects.

Chi-chi Nwanoku built Europe's first majority black and minority ethnic orchestra
Chi-chi Nwanoku © Eric Richmond

The first professional black and minority ethnic orchestra

Chi-chi, a fiery ball of energy compressed into a five-foot frame, was on the phone the next day to every classical musical institution she knew. Her plan was to build Europe’s first professional Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) orchestra from scratch. “Just because no one knew them, didn’t mean talent didn’t exist. I knew there were exceptional musicians among performers of ethnicity.”

In seven exhaustive months, she mustered 62 musicians comprising 31 nationalities. When the Chineke! orchestra took the stage for their first performance that September, they were greeted with a standing ovation before playing a note. For Chi-chi, who has always been pushing to widen the audience for classical music, it was refreshing. Looking at the audience from the stage where the Kinshasa Symphony had also performed, she saw an audience as mixed as the London she knew. 

“For the first time in my career I was playing to an audience that reflected my community. It was a relief,” she says. Chineke! means “creator of great things” and is a joyous exclamation in Nigeria’s Igbo language, the region of her father. The name came to her in the middle of the night – and she leapt out of bed shouting it. Chi-chi knows that her career would not have happened if it was not for key people: her mother & father, who regularly worked overtime to pay for her music lessons; Mrs B., a neighbour who “wheeled a piano up the road and gave it to me”; two teachers who convinced her to take up the double bass when an accident at the age of 18 ruined a promising 100-meter sprint career.

Greater diversity and inclusion in classical music

The Chineke! Foundation’s is Chi-chi’s own way of encouraging the next generation. The orchestra is performing worldwide to great acclaim and has up to 500 musicians on its roster, ranging in age from 11 to 65, with a further 150 in its junior ensemble. “Chineke! is a vision of what tomorrow’s orchestras can look like,” says Chi-chi. “It’s bringing about greater diversity and inclusion in classical music and showcases players and music underrepresented today. It is inspiring black children to know that they too belong on the stage.”

See an interview with Chi-chi Nwanoku:

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