Chi-chi Nwanoku CBE, founder of the Chineke! Orchestra. Image: Supplied
Chinyere Adah ‘Chi-chi’ Nwanoku is an internationally acclaimed double bassist and founder of the Chineke! Orchestra, Europe’s first classical orchestra made up of a majority of black and minority ethnic musicians, with whom she regularly performs.
Born in 1956 in London, the oldest of five children to a Nigerian psychiatrist father and Irish nurse mother, she was training to be a 100metre sprinter before injury scuppered her Olympic hopes. Having started her musical education aged seven, she switched focus before studying at the Royal Academy of Music.
Nwanoku is also a regular broadcaster on the BBC and has been awarded an MBE (in 2001), OBE (2017) and most recently a CBE in 2022, for services to music and diversity. In 2018, Woman’s Hour placed Nwanoku ninth in a list of the world’s most powerful women in music.
Speaking to The Big Issue for the iconic Letter to my Younger Self feature, Nwanoku reflects on an incredible career in music, but also on the activism that was spurred on by the racism she and her family suffered.
At 16 I was still being called Sonny, because people thought I was a boy. I lived in a tracksuit because I was a sprinter and I had cropped short hair. My nickname at school was Muscle Man. It was awful, I didn’t enjoy that nickname. I was passionately engaged in piano playing and music, but I was a 100m sprinter and that was my focus. I’d been spotted by a sprint coach at the age of eight.
I just missed qualifying for the Munich Olympics when I was 16 and I was preparing for Montreal in 1976. Like most teenagers, I thought I was indestructible. A call came through out of the blue from Reading Ladies FC [then Reading Royals LFC] wanting me to stand in for their striker, who was injured. They knew I was fast because I ran for Berkshire. And they knew I had brothers who were good at football. So they figured I’d be good. But I got injured. And the injury ended my sprinting career, just like that. And it was devastating.
People say when one door closes another one opens, but no one ever opened a door for me. So I say, when one door closes, open another one. We never had anything put on a plate for us. I won the music competition at school and the prize was free music lessons, so while I recovered from my knee operation, the head of music and headmistress decided I should learn the double bass. They said you have a chance of being employed if you take up an unpopular instrument. And they had every belief that I would be good at it.
My sprint training helped me master the double bass. I could already read music and because of listening for the starter’s gun – I had the fastest start in Great Britain – my ear training was good. Repetition in athletics training was like doing scales and arpeggios. The perseverance, attention to detail, listening and teamwork? I had honed those skills. And dealing with adrenaline and using it to execute at the highest level I’d also learned as a sprinter. I was a natural performer. Running on the track and playing on the concert stage are so similar. Playing concerts is my happiest time. I love to share the thing I love.
My parents were true pioneers. The hurdles they went through, the discrimination, the shocking things they experienced as a mixed-race couple in the mid-’50s. But they always encouraged us to get out there and seize life, enjoy it, and be truly invested in our environment, our community and the rest of the world. We were taught such strong morals and rules of life. We had no money, but had absolutely unconditional love and support from our parents who’d had everything thrown in their faces.
I was beaten up at school when I was seven. We were playing in the playground and an older girl punched me in the face. I had no idea what I’d done. She was screaming the word “wog” at me. I was more fascinated in the word than her fists. A crowd formed, and I could see my younger siblings looking worried and fearful. That was my first lived experience of being attacked and abused because of my skin colour. And it was a clear indication of how racism is taught – her parents must have taught her that word. We had the talk. The first thing Dad made us do was to look at him and Mum and see what the difference was. All we could see was Mum and Dad. Finally, he had to make us observe the colour of their skin.
At my first concert at the Royal Academy of Music, one tutor told my parents I would not have a career because I was playing a man’s instrument. After I packed up my double bass, which always takes a while, I saw my mum looking concerned. But my father was very chilled and rolling his eyes. Because he knew the fabric I was made of. I’d lost my career as a sprinter. He knew I was not going to let some white old man stop me by saying I’m playing a man’s instrument.
It would have been incredible if the Chineke! Orchestra [Europe’s first majority-Black and ethnically diverse orchestra] had existed when I was younger. I don’t say, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’, I flip that phrase and say, ‘You can be what you can see.’ I feel positive when I hear that. But I was always the only person of colour, not just on stage but in the whole auditorium. Audience, front of house, back of house, management, even the music on our music stands – it did not reflect me. In 1984, I became the first female principal double bass player in a London orchestra. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I was probably the first person of colour as well. Because I was busy getting on with my career, playing my heart out on that stage.
I could count on one hand how many Black musicians I played with in the UK before setting up the Chineke! Orchestra. I was on the board of the Association of British Orchestras and we created an all-party group in Westminster. The (then) culture minister, Ed Vaizey, would ask why I was the only person of colour he saw regularly on the international concert platform. Then, when I went to see the Kinshasa Orchestra from [Democratic Republic of] the Congo at the Royal Festival Hall in 2014, I saw Ed on the walk from Waterloo station.
I believe in divine intervention. He invited me to the pre-concert reception and that’s where 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.
There were 62 musicians of colour from 31 nationalities at our first concert. 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. Everybody else is playing that music. So we did two pieces by Black composers and two by white composers. We continue to celebrate all composers.
It’s important to demonstrate how music can be inclusive and genres can blend together. We have collaborated with Stormzy, Grace Jones, Carl Craig the Detroit techno legend, recorded and performed songs by Bob Marley and we played the ‘live’ soundtrack from Black Panther at Royal Albert Hall. The Chineke! Junior Orchestra backed Robbie Williams playing Angels at Soccer Aid. The main body of our work is classical, but we love playing different genres and bringing people together. Music is for everyone.
I would tell my younger self to celebrate her authentic self. When I started to become conscious of boys and some of my friends were preening themselves, I wished my hair was straight. I used to wish for all the wrong things. So now I wish I’d been prouder of my authentic self because there was no one like me in my peer group. There are so many things we have in common and very few that are different. We should enjoy those differences.
When I got my MBE for services to music in 2001 [Chi-chi Nwanoku also later received the CBE for services to Music and Diversity], all I could think about was my parents and all the doors that were shut in their faces. In the mid-’50s, as a mixed-race couple, when they’d try to find a bedsit, they would be confronted by signs saying: ‘No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs.’ They’d look at each other and say, “Well, only two out of three! We haven’t got a dog so let’s knock on the door anyway.”
That is the positivity they spawned. And to have that influence around me all my life until they died was incredible. My parents had retired to my father’s village in Nigeria but flew over to be at Buckingham Palace when the Queen presented [the MBE] to me. So there they were, 50 years later, still together, still loving their family and each other. And there was arguably the most difficult door in the country to walk through. And in we walked.
Chineke! Orchestra featuring Chi-Chi Nwanoku celebrate the music of the first African-American female composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra on their new albumFlorence Price, out on 23 June. They will perform at the BBC Proms on 1 September.
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