From the trailblazing philosophy behind the orchestra’s inception to it’s founder’s attention to small, yet significant, detail Chineke! have steadily shifted the landscape in which it operates.
While at first it may seem trivial, Chi-chi is resolutely steadfast in insisting that, ‘we all walk on as one with the conductor’ every time they play. Given the recent impact of another seemingly innocuous gesture - taking the knee - evidently, details matter.
From ensuring that her players are afforded full biographies in programmes, being unafraid of discussing details with conductors, to the clothes they walk on stage wearing, she has a fierce commitment to embodying the founding philosophy of the orchestra.
‘They walk on the stage looking like something out of the 19th century with these long frock coats and frilly dress shirts,’ she exasperatedly says of many a modern orchestra’s attire.
‘From day one, I've committed and ensured that in every concert we include a piece of music by a composer of relative ethnicity.’
‘Please, this is not Harry Potter. Why are they dressing like that still? How can any orchestra seriously think they will attract a younger audience dressed like that?!
‘At the moment, we simply wear smart black,’ she continues, ‘I want to change it, and we’ve got some very interesting options in the pipeline. As it's got to be right, and relevant, and I can assure you it won’t be tails!’
Inclusion lies at the heart of everything Chineke! does. Chi-chi expands: ‘From day one, I've committed and ensured that in every concert we include a piece of music by a composer of relative ethnicity.’
Unsurprisingly, the orchestra’s programme for the Proms 2021 does not deviate from this core value. When Chineke! take to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall the venue will be filled with the music of composers that have hitherto existed in the shadows of their white counterparts.
When asked about the curation process for the event, Chi-chi is unwaveringly decisive in her response: ‘I said, “David, (Pickard, BBC Proms director) we will open with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha overture,”’ seeing as this epic piece was once in the UK’s top three favourite choral works (alongside Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah).
‘I think of my parents as pioneers, because they survived that period of time from the mid-fifties. When they were trying to find a Bedsit room to rent and there'd be a sign that said “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish.”'
If Chi-chi’s passion for the work of English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is bound-less, her frustration at his subsequent erasure within the classical music world matches it.
‘244 times [Hiawatha was played at the Albert Hall], and there's not a single image of him in any of the corridors around the building inside or out,’ she exclaims. I think he has more than earned an image of himself on those hallowed walls, don’t you?
Chi-chi goes on to share a wonderful anecdote about how when Taylor-Coleridge was at the Royal College of music with peers Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Gustav Holst the buzz around him Coleridge-Taylor was so strong that King Edward VII used to attend the young composer’s premieres. Chi-chi came across the programme for the premier of his Symphony No.1 with the college orchestra and discovered, ‘there's Holst playing trombone and Vaughan-Williams, wait for it… on the triangle! [laughs]’
Sandwiched between Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha and Symphony in A minor the orchestra will play pieces by Fela Sowande and Florence B. Price.
Of the Sowande piece she enthuses, ‘It's such a joyful piece of music. It's scored just for strings and harp,’ yet her explanation for the inclusion of Price’s piece has a more sombre tone.
‘For those composers, Florence B. Price, William Grant-Still, William Dawson, Nathaniel Dett in the USA, it was the height of the Jim Crow days (a reference to laws that enforced racial segregation in the USA up until the mid part of the 20th century). It was bad enough for the men. It was horrendous for Florence Price. She still produced beautiful music. That's why I wanted her in the programme as well; it’s important to champion female composers as often as possible and forms part of our ‘inclusion’ philosophy’
Despite the often heartbreaking realities she highlights, her innate positivity and can-do attitude never ceases to shine through, and it’s an enviable frame of mind she appears to have inherited from her parents.
‘If we want to develop critical thinkers for tomorrow, we need to nurture creative minds.'
‘I think of my parents as pioneers, because they survived that period of time from the mid-fifties. When they were trying to find a Bedsit room to rent and there'd be a sign that said “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish”. My dad was Black from Nigeria and my mum was white from Southern Ireland. Luckily they had a sense of humour, they’d look at each other and say, "Well, we haven't got a dog. Two out of three, let's still knock on the door." That was my parents,’ she offers.
An inability to be crushed by the forces around you, is an attribute that extends to her work with her orchestra. She his highly critical of the protective barriers the industry has fostered that have ultimately led to a crippling stasis within classical music: ’It's also why the industry has stayed so un-diverse for this long because people have resisted bring in players or repertoire who don't look like them.’
And therein lies the rub, without role models in these prominent positions in the first place how will real change occur?
It’s a fundamental point that Chi-chi is well aware of, which is perhaps why the Chineke! Foundation covers every aspect of the classical journey from top to bottom, with its Junior Orchestra and Work in Schools initiative representing the beginning stages.
‘If we want to develop critical thinkers for tomorrow, we need to nurture creative minds,' she comments on the importance of music education.
‘Of course, not every child who learns an instrument is going to become a professional musician; that’s not possible, but just the learning of music, it's also the only subject that you learn that teaches you how to listen. I don't just mean listening to music, but listening to each other. Boy, do we need some listening,’ she adds.
‘For the first time in my entire career, the audience looked like London. It looked like the community that I live in.'
Of equal importance to Chi-chi is that the philosophy of inclusion extends to the audience, and that is perhaps why she has continued to challenge its exclusive practices and traditions throughout her career.
From their inaugural performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall Chi-chi saw the fruits of her labour: ‘For the first time in my entire career, the audience looked like London. It looked like the community that I live in. I don't just mean people of colour, either. I mean, ages. There were sometimes four generations from great-grandma down to great-grandchild in some cases.’
Spend any time in the company of Chi-chi Nwanoku and it’s hard not to come away with a sense that a real sea change is coming through her sheer force of will, ‘I could see the orchestra. I could visualise it. I didn't yet know them, but I knew they were there some-where. I have a strong belief system and despite what several around me said, I learned not to believe their popular narrative. The players were always there; the more I looked, the more I found the well of talent runs deep.
It’s a change that she herself has experienced in her own journey through the classical world: ’Racism is hurtful. It's designed to diminish people. I went through a long career where I never even breathed the word, [but] I was always the only black person in the orchestra.’
'We aren't trying to keep this sense of inclusion and belonging to ourselves. No. Music is for sharing.’
She continues: ’It may appear that I’m now of part of the establishment, having also spent the past dozen years sitting on boards; it’s a bit like being invited to have a seat at the table, being asked to speak on government panels, give keynotes at universities, music organisations and educational institutions worldwide, they're giving me a voice.’
Given the struggles she has faced her generosity is quite astounding: ‘Honestly. It's helping to uplift white people as well. We aren't trying to keep this sense of inclusion and belonging to ourselves. No. Music is for sharing.’
And don’t ever doubt Chi-chi’s love for the establishment she is fighting to improve. Her passion for the BBC Proms is palpable: ‘Walking out onto that stage in that iconic building, it's almost like… you know when you see your football team coming out into the enormous circular stadium, the buzz, the noise, the adrenalin? It's exciting. That's what it feels like on the classical music bench.’