Ahead of his Dublin debut, the acclaimed musician talks about playing a royal wedding, racism in the UK, and crying when he hears Mozart’s Requiem
In early 2018, Kadiatu Kanneh rang her son to tell him an important-looking letter with a royal insignia from Kensington Palace had arrived for him out of the blue at the family home in Nottingham.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason was then just 18 but already a rising star in the field of classical music who had been named the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016. Nervously, he told his mother to open the letter.
A few days later, he received a phone call from the palace. After a few formalities, the phone was passed to Meghan Markle, who told the acclaimed young cellist: “I’ve been listening to your stuff and I would love you to perform at my wedding.”
Kanneh-Mason replied that he would be honoured. But he had to keep it a secret until a week before the May 19 wedding of Ms Markle to Prince Harry.
Wearing a Paul Smith suit, sitting underneath a huge floral arch, he performed Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’, Fauré’s ‘Après Un Rêve’ and Maria Theresia von Paradis’s ‘Sicilienne’ at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.
In the chapel, the royal family, George Clooney, Oprah and David Beckham were among the 600 guests enjoying his bravura performance.
But watching around the world was a TV audience of millions, surely one the young cellist could never have dreamed of. Was he nervous?
“I wasn’t nervous, no,” he says. “I don’t feel the difference between audiences in that sense.”
No butterflies, then, when you saw Her Majesty looking on?
“I didn’t notice the Queen at the time. I was focused on playing.”
Two years later she awarded Sheku an MBE for his contribution to music in Britain. Kanneh-Mason, who makes his Irish debut at the National Concert Hall next month, was one of a number of musicians and singers representing a very modern Britain at Windsor Castle that day.
Since then the issue of race has been very much to the fore in Britain, not least because of Markle herself and her treatment at the hands of the press.
So what does being British mean to this musical prodigy?
“The nature of being British is very broad and different for everyone. It’s hard to summarise what being British is,” Kanneh-Mason says.
Last September, he played at the Last Night of the Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall. It is traditionally a night of pomp – and the gung-ho waving of British flags. How did that make him feel?
“At the Proms, I would hope it is a celebration of music in Britain, and that’s what we are celebrating.”
You told the Guardian at the time that you hoped the flag-waving wouldn’t be something “sinister”. What did you mean by that?
“The history in this country is very, very problematic,” he says. “And we should be very much aware of it. There is a lot that would be incredibly offensive to celebrate. And so I hoped that would not be a part of it.”
Kanneh-Mason is an exceptional young man, but he is also part of an exceptional family who has brought a whole new energy to the world of classical music. He and his six siblings (Isata, Braimah, Konya, Jeneba, Aminata, and Mariatu) are all performers (his sister Isata, an acclaimed pianist, recently performed at the National Concert Hall).
Last year, his mother Kadiatu won the Indie Book Award for Non Fiction for her memoir House of Music, “about what it takes to raise a musical family in a Britain divided by class and race”.
She was born in Sierra Leone to a Welsh mother and moved to the UK at the end of 1970 when her father died suddenly. Britain in the 1970s, Kadiatu wrote, “Was a cruel place to be black and mixed race. I, with my three siblings, faced a reality stacked against us.
“There were times when I thought I wouldn’t be able to continue writing as it was so painful to return to those childhood days, but I knew they formed the kind of mother I became.”
Rearing seven young classical music prodigies, Kadiatu, a former lecturer at Birmingham University, writes of her determination “never to remark on the lack of black people in classical music”.
This determination also saw her husband Stuart Mason – who had migrated from Antigua, in the Caribbean – being so tired one night when driving their children home from a classical music concert far from their Nottingham home that his car hit a telegraph pole.
This was to say nothing of packing the children off on the 6am train every weekend to the Royal Academy Junior Department in London.
“My parents are not musicians,” says Kanneh-Mason now. “That whole world is very new to them.”
In 2015, he and his siblings reached the semi-finals of ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent as The Kanneh-Masons. He says the experience was lots of fun.
Host Simon Cowell told the group – who performed on cello, piano, violin, viola, and guitar to various classical pieces of music – “I loved all of the different choices of music, you’re actually happy because a lot of people when they play this kind of music look quite miserable.”
Kanneh-Mason was born on April 4, 1999, in Bahrain, the second eldest in the family after Isata. The family moved to England not long after, where all seven children developed a love of classical music.
There is a strong difference between hearing music and listening
He remembers having to practise the cello in the bathroom because the family home was otherwise full with his brothers and sisters playing their own instruments.You got a sense of this musical family on the BBC’s 2020 documentary This House is Full of Music, which showed the Kanneh-Masons all together in Covid-19 lockdown at home in Nottingham.
“For me, music was always a very powerful thing,” he says. “I spend a lot of time thinking about music and playing music.”
Asked what he was like as a child, he says: “I was always very different as a person in terms of what came out – you know, talking to me. It was very different to when I played the cello.
“For example, in my childhood lessons with my second teacher we barely spoke for the first three years. I didn’t say much. I thought a lot.”
“The music. The world. But I wouldn’t be vocal about it, necessarily. Generally I was quite shy. Now I am different.”
Do you play with your heart or your head?
“Ideally, a combination of both,” he smiles.
“It also about listening actively. There is a strong difference between hearing music and listening. It is about actively being there and to be present and to give 100pc to what you are hearing. It takes a lot of energy, to be honest.”
In House of Music, Kadiatu wrote of her son “carrying his cello like a talisman” en route to winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year award.
He was 17. Sheku – then a sixth-former at a state comprehensive in Nottingham – was also the first black musician to win the prestigious award since it started in 1978. Some commentators noted that his winning the prize raised the question of why only one black, state-school educated pupil had ever got this far in the competition.
He spoke in a subsequent interview when asked about the burden of responsibility that this placed on him.
“Speaking about diversity is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of people like me. White artists need to talk about it too.”
“I think in highlighting that [being the first black musician to win the prestigious award] hopefully I can inspire lots of others,” he says now.
“That’s the positive of it. Of course it is not something that I think of actively as I perform. I think of myself as a musician and I focus on the music. If I’m also able to inspire others, that’s good.
“To get to such a high level on the cello in classical music requires essential education that is not accessible to a large percentage of the population in the UK. Most black people would come into that category, unfortunately. It is a question of race but also of class.
“But that said, there are also many barriers along the way, even with education, that would stop someone who looks like me getting to the level and the position.
“And while being the source of inspiration, the audience in the world of classical music view or have viewed people like me for a long time...”
I interrupt him. You’ve used the phrase “people like me” and “someone who looks like me”. What do you mean?
“People of colour, black people,” he says. “When it has caused barriers or difficulties that’s when it becomes very relevant.”
As for the British Conservative Party in government cutting funding for free music education in schools, he says: “That is a massive shame because music is such a powerful thing and if you take that away from a large group of people in the UK the effects will, I think, be terrible.
“It is really sad to see, taking away from young people this opportunity to express themselves.
“I think also music is a wonderful combination of something that is emotional and something that is a technical skill and something that requires intellectual understanding. Combining all those three things in one subject is a really valuable skill for a person, and it would be a real shame not to have that.”
Unsurprisingly, he told GQ magazine in a cover story in 2019 that he didn’t vote for the Conservatives at that year’s election in the UK. Is that because the British Labour Party appear more inclined to be good for the Arts?
“Yes – and good to people.”
And less racist than the Tories?
“Probably,” he laughs.
When I ask later about racism and whether it has become more subtle, he says: “A lot of the time racism is very subtle. That is true. And subtle is more difficult to challenge in that moment in some ways, but I am very often aware.
“You can feel it or sometimes on reflection I look back and say, ‘actually, that was sinister’. I find speaking to my parents about it is often the best. They always have a great perspective on it. It was certainly more challenging for my parents growing up here in the UK, but it is still an ongoing thing here.”
He supports Arsenal football team (“I think they will win the title this year”) and his favourite player is midfielder Bukayo Saka, born to Nigerian parents.
He also likes rap.
“I think Stormzy is great,” he says of the hip-hop star from Croydon. “I like his music. I’d be up for working with an artist like that. I’d be interested in working with a range of different things, outside of the classical world.”
This 23-year-old is not, I think, like any kid you’d meet. Watching the BBC documentary aired in November 2016 about him – Young, Gifted and Classical: The Making of a Maestro – will prove just how remarkable he is. As will a listen to his music.
In early 2018, he released his debut album Inspiration. Two years later, his album, Elgar, with his interpretation of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, saw him become the first cellist to reach the UK Official Albums Chart Top 10.
Last year he released his third solo album Song, featuring pieces by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Stravinsky, was another huge hit for the gifted young maestro who the New York Times dubbed “a compelling musical storyteller.”
He realised he was more than accomplished on the cello “at different stages”.
“I had very good teachers from the start. I suppose I did competitions from when I was an early teenager and I won a lot of those. I guess that was in some way an indication.
“I was always listening to amazing cellists and amazing musicians like Jacqueline du Pré. That was the real reference. Of course I was doing competitions and therefore being compared to some of my peers, but that was never my goal of how I wanted to play, really.”
And what was your goal?
“I’m still discovering that, to be honest. Ultimately, when the expression coming out is both vivid and direct – and incredibly human – is how I would describe the artists I admire.”
What he means by “incredibly human” with music is, he explains: “When something is on the verge of exploding or cracking – when it is incredibly vulnerable, but it doesn’t break. Or when it is incredibly ecstatic, but it is not over-the-top.
“It’s always at this thin line. It’s difficult to define. Restraint is about giving less,
but it is also about directing the energy into the right places and not distracting from the message.”
Apropos of his own vulnerability, he says he cries to Mozart’s Requiem each time he hears it.
“Every time, yes, either in concert or in recording. It is incredibly, deeply and personally tragic music.
“It has these unbelievable moments of purity and beauty and hope, and sweetness almost – and all that in the face of death is very impactful, I find.”
Sheku Kanneh-Mason plays the National Concert Hall in Dublin on March 14 at 8pm. nch.ie