Music

Chi-chi Nwanoku: 'I was not interested in just playing music by our dead white friends'

Ace of double bass, Chi-chi Nwanoku CBE, explains why she set up the Chineke! Orchestra – and why she has always been an activist

Chi-chi Nwanoku

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Chi-chi Nwanoku is a world leading double bass player and the visionary leader of the Chineke! Orchestra. Since its inception in 2015, Chineke! has changed the face and sound of classical music in this country – as the first orchestra in Europe to be formed of a majority of black and ethnically diverse musicians. And not before time. In a new interview for The Big Issue, Nwanoku explained why the mission to diversify the classical music community — and its playlist — remains vital.

I was always the only person of colour. Not just on stage, but in the whole auditorium,” said Nwanoku, in her Letter To My Younger Self interview.

“Audience, front of house, back of house, management – even the music on our music stands – it did not reflect me… and I could count on one hand how many black musicians I played with in the UK before setting up the Chineke! Orchestra.”

Nwanoku’s ability as a double bass player was only realised when her dream of running in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal were dashed by a football injury. Overnight, she tells The Big Issue, her future was rewritten and her focus had to change.

However, track and field’s loss was music’s gain. After a career spent breaking down barriers and forging new ground, Nwanoku was inspired by a trip to see the Kinshasa Orchestra, who were visiting London from the Congo, and a chance meeting with then Culture Minister Ed Vaizey.

“I believe in divine intervention,” Nwanoku said. “Ed invited me to the pre-concert reception and that’s where I had my lightbulb moment. I realised I had to do something.

“This is the 21st century – it should not be a novelty that there’s more than one black face on stage. The next morning, I called every music establishment saying I was creating an orchestra made up of a majority of black and ethnically diverse musicians. Everyone agreed something needed to be done.”

The Chineke! Orchestra
Chi-chi Nwanoku rehearsing with the Chineke! Orchestra at David Geffen Hall, New York, in 2023. Image: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Their debut concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2015 was a vital corrective. The music played that night included black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade for the Orchestra and In Memoriam: Stephen Lawrence by Philip Herbert.

“There were 62 musicians of colour from 31 nationalities at our first concert,” Nwanoku recalled.

“But I was not interested in walking on stage after all that effort finding those players to just play music by our dead white friends. What is the point? Everybody else is playing that music.”

Chineke! Orchestra have since collaborated with Stormzy, played with Robbie Williams, techno pioneer Carl Craig and are regular performers at the BBC Proms. And so much of their success is down to founder Chi-chi Nwanoku’s determination to create positive change.

“I’ve come to realise I’ve been an activist and fighter of injustice all my life,” she said. “It was a case of necessity. It was a case of survival.

“Even as a small child, it would keep me awake at night if I’d seen a teacher being nasty to a child, or myself and my siblings had been picked on by our very racist headmaster at Blean School.

“I want an equitable and fair life for everyone. That’s my politics. That’s why I created Chineke! Orchestra. Our motto is ‘championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music’. I’m very proud of it.”

Chineke! Orchestra Celebrates the music of Florence Price, the first African American female composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, on their new album, out on 23 June on Chineke! Records in partnership with Decca. They perform at the BBC Proms on 1 September

Read Chi-chi Nwanoku’s full Letter To My Younger Self interview in The Big Issue magazine, on sale now.

The Big Issue magazine exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work, buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today. Or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available from the App Store or Google Play.

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