Half a century ago, a softly spoken Nigerian tramped the streets of London with his Irish wife searching for a room to rent. Door after door was slammed in his face
Half a century ago, a softly spoken Nigerian tramped the streets of London with his Irish wife searching for a room to rent. Door after door was slammed in his face.
‘No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs,’ he was told. Such was the man’s gentle nature, instead of anger, he held his wife and teased, ‘well, at least we don’t have a dog.’
That man was Michael Nwanoku. In less than a year from that moment, he would have the first of his five children with his wife, Margaret.
Today, one of his daughters, Chi-chi Nwanoku, 60, is about the most celebrated double bassist on the planet and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music where she works as a professor. In 2001 she was awarded an MBE for services to music.
‘My parents never doubted me from the moment I was born,’ says Chi-chi. ‘My father used to say: “There is nothing you cannot do in this world Chi-chi, but what you do have to do is study your books and excel.”
‘When they came with me to Buckingham Palace to collect my MBE, I had this overwhelming feeling it was for them. We had to enter the palace through the central big golden gates and all I could think of was all those doors being shut in my parents’ face. Probably the hardest doors to enter in this country are at Buckingham Palace and there they were opening and my parents went through those gates.’
Chi-chi’s father, who studied at the Open University to become a psychiatrist, died at the age of 92, three years after that momentous day and her mother, a nurse, soon after. She misses them both dreadfully, but continues to follow their example, encouraging other musicians from ethnic minority backgrounds to excel in what is a predominantly white profession.
Just 5ft tall, Chi-chi is a tiny figure of a woman who possesses huge determination. Single-handedly, after setting up the Chineke! Orchestra — Britain’s first professional orchestra made up entirely of young black and minority ethnic musicians — two years ago, she is changing the face of classical music in this country.
For the orchestra’s success is nothing short of remarkable, with cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason winning 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, his brother Braimah, who plays violin in the junior orchestra, receiving a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music, bass player James Francis winning a scholarship to Eton, violinist Didier Osindero . . . well, let’s just say the list goes on.
Today, one of his daughters, Chi-chi Nwanoku, 60, is about the most celebrated double bassist on the planet and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music where she works as a professor. In 2001 she was awarded an MBE for services to music
Chi-chi, a mother to two grown-up children and now also a grandmother, is particularly proud of the scholarships.
The importance of education is written through her like words through a stick of rock. ‘My dream is to help get music back onto the national curriculum,’ she says. ‘A major part of the problem with the lack of diversity in the classical music industry is that there are hardly any music programmes in state schools any more.
‘The cost of buying or hiring and learning an instrument excludes many lower income families. If it hadn’t been for my music teacher at school . . .’ She shakes her head.
Chi-chi, you see, had never intended to be a double bass player. She was training to represent Britain in the 1976 Montreal Olympics as a 100m sprinter when a knee injury at 17 ended her career.
‘I was walking across the playground [at the selective, high-performing Kendrick School in Reading] after two weeks in hospital when my music teacher John Dussek fell into step with me.
‘He was a very upright, very proper man, very old school. I loved him. He said: “Chi-chi the whole school is really devastated for you. You’re not just the school’s athlete, you’re a county athlete and soon to be a national athlete and it’s all over.
But the headmistress and I think you could have a career in music”. I was doing A-level music and played the piano but it was the furthest thing from my mind.
‘I was just coping. He said: “You’re not brilliant enough on the piano to be a concert pianist but if you played an orchestral instrument — particularly an unpopular one — you could have a career. Which unpopular orchestral instrument would you be attracted to?” ‘I said: “I don’t know.”
‘So, he took me into a room and there stood two double basses. I said: “Sir, check me out, I’m the smallest girl in the sixth form.” He said: “Chi-chi, when have you ever been put off by a challenge?” ’
She is the sort of sparky, always on-the-go woman who finds it impossible to sit still unless she has a bow and double bass in her hand. ‘If I was at school today, I’d probably be one of those children they dish out ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] tablets to,’ she says.
Chi-chi, a mother to two grown-up children and now also a grandmother, is particularly proud of the scholarships
‘I was bouncing off the walls and needed to know what everything was. I was the only black child in the class at primary school [they were then living in Kent] but didn’t discover I was a different colour until I was seven. I still remember that day.’ She was playing British Bulldog in the playground when a girl in the year above punched her in the face and began calling her names.
‘I didn’t raise my hand because my father taught me to turn the other cheek,’ she says. ‘He was a very calm person who used to say: “When people behave badly it says more about them than about you.” Anyway I was more fascinated by this word coming out of her mouth with such vitriol and passion.’
That word was ‘wog’.
‘I’d never heard it before and didn’t know what it meant. I thought have I wogged her, or have I done a wog? My siblings told my mum so when my dad got home from work I had to tell him. That’s when he explained to us we were different in some ways.
‘He said: “Look at my face, then look at your mother’s face.” All we could see was mum and dad so he had to rub it in they were different colours. That was the day I woke up to that sort of thing. It was such a shock.
‘I remember feeling this slight panic thinking: “I’ve got so much to do, is this going to stop me?” That was when my father said there was nothing I couldn’t do in this world if I excelled.
‘My father was always so respectful. He never retaliated. I remember sitting with him on a bus and there was a girl about the same age as me with her mum and the girl was pointing at my father, screaming: “There’s a black man.” He just held his head high.
‘He taught us morals, to be polite and to have some responsibility about the way you go through life. Nigeria was a British colony and, for him, this was the land of hope and glory, where anything was possible if you tried to excel.’
Chi-chi was eight when a coach spotted her talent as an athlete. ‘I was playing the piano and was entranced by music but my sprinting really took over,’ she says.
‘I had two training sessions a week and I loved every second of it. I felt free, excited — as if I was flying. I was always the smallest person on the running track but I had the fastest leg speed.’
At 15, she started attending the Kendrick School after the family moved to Reading. As well as representing the school in music and sport, she played for the Berkshire first-11 hockey team, the second-7 netball team and was the fastest sprinter in the county.
Having narrowly missed qualifying for the Munich Olympics at 16, she was preparing for the 1976 Olympics when, fatefully, she agreed to play in a ladies football match. ‘I was kind of flying along with the ball when a leg connected with this leg,’ she points to her right leg. ‘My leg was completely twisted with my foot facing the other way. I was taken off on a stretcher.
‘I was in this hospital cubicle with this old geezer looking at my knee which, by that stage, was the size of a football it had swollen so much. He just said: “Sprinting is over for you, my dear. This will have to be operated on.”
‘Then he left. I could feel everything drain out of me. He said it so casually. I just wanted to scream.’
But her parents didn’t allow her to wallow in self-pity.
‘We were survivors. I had two weeks before I had to go into hospital for the operation during which time there was the annual school music competition. I had never gone in for it before but now I had more time to practise.’
Chi-chi played Chopin and won. Her conversation with her inspirational music teacher in the school playground followed that triumph. A week after her operation she had her first double bass lesson.
After completing A-levels, she attended a technical college for two years before applying to the Royal Academy of Music. She met her husband Tim Hugh, the principal cellist at the London Symphony Orchestra, and they married in 1986. Her son, Jacob, and daughter, Phoebe, followed in 1987 and 1989.
‘I know I was a good mum. I raised my children on their own from when they were four and five because Tim and I separated, although we’re still very close.’ Indeed, there are numerous family photographs taken throughout the years on every wall of her warm home.
On the hall table is a photograph of her father in his formal Nigerian dress and her mother in a chic hat taken on the day they accompanied Chi-chi to Buckingham Palace. The look of unadulterated pride on her father’s face is a sight to behold. ‘I was just a musician playing in an orchestra, teaching and loving raising my kids. I have no idea who nominated me.’ She grins fit to burst.
Sadly, her music teacher had died a number of years before from a heart attack so she invited his wife Molly.
‘I wouldn’t have even known there was something like a career in music if it hadn’t been for him. Now I want to make other people understand they’re not alone.
‘Chineke! is like an extended family. There are 72 people from 35 nationalities. My parents believed in me and I believe in them.
‘They walk off the stage with their heads held a little bit taller so they can go and do auditions — go and walk through the doors that are opening for all black and ethnic minorities in classical music.’
Chineke! Orchestra will be performing at Brighton Festival on May 6 and at the Salisbury Festival on June 6. See chineke.org.