Sierra Leone Telegraph: 22 May 2016
It is difficult to think of any good story making global news headline about or linked to Sierra Leone in almost a decade, after a brutal civil war that destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
If news making the rounds from Sierra Leone today is not about corrupt officials denying their own people the right to a better quality of life, it is about the abuse of power with impunity, by those running the country.
Today, most homes in the capital Freetown are without clean drinking water, let alone electricity. Most people in Sierra Leone are living a miserable life of poverty. Yet the president, his ministers and senior officials are living a life of luxury beyond belief.
And not to talk also, of the miserable bottom ranking of the country in almost every global human development statistics, after 55 years of freedom from British colonial rule – ‘one of the most poorest countries in the world’; ‘one of the most corrupt nations in the world’; ‘one of the most dangerous places in the world for a woman to give birth’ – the list goes on.
But yesterday the UK Daily Mail newspaper published a unique story about a family, that will make every Sierra Leonean proud of the immense good that their country can give to the rest of the world, if only corrupt and depraved politicians can ensure that every citizen is given the opportunity to harness their God given potential.
This story is about the talented Kanneh-Mason family of seven children, whose 17 year old son – Sheku Kanneh-Mason has won this year’s Britain’s Young Musician of the Year Award.
Sheku’s mother is of Sierra Leonean origin. His father is from the Caribbean Island of Antigua.
But meet Sheku’s siblings – all below the age of 20 years. They are accomplished musicians in their own right: Isata, Braimah, Mariatu, Konya, Jeneba, and Aminata.
Read their amazing story in the UK Daily Mail newspaper (By Jenny Johnston for the Daily Mail – published: 00:22, 21 May 2016)
Britain’s most talented family? As a 17-year-old becomes the first black BBC Young Musician, meet his SIX brilliant siblings and the parents who sacrificed everything for them
- Sheku Kanneh-Mason started cello aged six and had Grade 8 by age nine
- Nottingham student was named the Young Musician 2016 on Sunday
- But his proud parents say any of his siblings could have won the award
- All seven brothers and sisters play instruments – most to grade eight level
The latest trophy in the Kanneh-Mason family home arrived this week, carried back to Nottingham with its owner’s dirty washing and maths revision books. It belongs to 17-year-old Sheku, who, on Sunday, won the Holy Grail for any aspiring performer when he was named BBC Young Musician 2016.
Judges called his concerto performance in London ‘electrifying, sincere and moving’. It left the audience marvelling that anyone so young (he had to dash home for AS exams) could deliver such magic. Yet Sheku wears his talent as casually as his Bob Marley T-shirt.
He was also the first black youngster to win the title — and the fact that he attends a comprehensive school made it a double whammy in the elitist world of classical music.
There to cheer him on (and cry with nerves when he broke a string and had to start again) were his mum Kadie, dad Stuart and six siblings.
This is where Sheku’s remarkable story veers into fairy-tale territory. For there are seven Kanneh-Mason children, each, by all accounts, as musically gifted as the next.
‘I don’t want to take away from Sheku’s achievement because I know how hard he worked for it,’ says Kadie. ‘But it could really have been any one of them.’
Squeezed onto the family sofa, the siblings represent a jaw-dropping collection of musical talent.
The eldest, 19-year-old Isata, is a pianist and former Young Musician finalist herself. She studies full-time at the Royal Academy of Music, under a scholarship paid for by Elton John, with whom she has performed. She plays violin and viola to Grade 8 standard. In two of her Grade 8 exams she achieved the highest marks in the country.
Braimah, 18, is a violinist who achieved his Grade 8 by the age of 12. The most talkative of the siblings, he will join his sister at the Royal Academy in September.
Then comes Sheku, who first picked up a cello aged six and had his Grade 8 by the age of nine, again with the highest marks in the country.
He wakes every Saturday at 4.30am to catch the train to London, where he attends the junior school of the Royal Academy. With him go Konya, 15 — Grade 8 in piano at 11, violin at 12 and several regional trophies — and Jeneba, 13, Grade 8 at nine, with the highest marks in the area.
The little chatterbox is Aminata, ten, who already has — yes, it IS getting repetitive — her Grade 8 in both violin and piano.
Indeed, the only one who hasn’t got Grade 8 in at least two instruments is six-year-old Mariatu, who has just started the violin.
So, is this the most talented family in Britain? It was a question asked last year by Simon Cowell when the six eldest siblings appeared on Britain’s Got Talent (actually, he said they might be the most talented family in the world).
Alas, the title went to a dog, but that surely says more about the BGT voters than the Kanneh-Masons.
The really surprising thing is that neither of the Kanneh-Mason parents is a musician.
‘It started with Isata,’ mum Kadie explains. ‘We started her on the piano because she was very bright and we wanted to give her something more than schoolwork. She would be given one piece a week, and have mastered it in ten minutes.
‘Isata set the tone and, when the others were born, music practice was normal.’
‘We never set out to produce an orchestra,’ adds Stuart. ‘It came as a bit of a shock to us, too.’
Their house is given over to music. The sprawling period home in a leafy Nottingham suburb is detached, mercifully.
‘There are four pianos in total,’ says Kadie. ‘We’ve also got three cellos, a viola, two violins — or three, no, four.
‘One of them did want to learn the double bass but you have to draw the line somewhere.’
Inevitably, the children are often called ‘prodigies’. Three of the seven have perfect pitch.
Kadie reveals that a broken dial on their oven sometimes emits a high shriek. Sheku has identified the note as ‘a very sharp G’. When I ask, as a joke, what key the wasp at the window is buzzing in, he says ‘E flat’. (Photo: Sheku and his dedicated mum Kadie).
Yet their mother doesn’t really hold with the prodigy theory. She insists that, while talented, their successes are down to ‘sheer hard work’. Each practises for at least two hours a day, more if they are preparing for an exam or concert (Isata can play for seven hours).
This dedication has obviously led to accusations of hothousing. ‘People assume you are a pushy parent,’ Kadie nods. ‘We did sit with the children when they were doing their practice, particularly in the early stages.
‘We did often say: “No you can’t have a sleepover or go out to play yet.” But forcing them to play? It was never like that. This lot play like they breathe.’
The parents also deserve a trophy here. ‘There have been times, mostly when I’m up at 4.30am on a Saturday, when I do think “what on earth are we doing?”,’ Kadie admits.
From the off, they made a decision to be deeply involved with their children’s music, making sure at least one parent was in every audience.
Once, to save money on train fares to a music event, all nine of them crammed into the car with their instruments. On the way home they were so exhausted that Stuart fell asleep at the wheel and the car went into a ditch.
‘He injured his wrist but thank God no one was seriously hurt. At that point we decided we had to use the train, whatever the cost.’
It’s a worry to which we keep returning. Money dominates this interview more than Mozart or Mendelssohn, sadly. For the cost of having seven musicians in the family is crippling.
Stuart works as a business manager on a ‘good salary but not ridiculous’, says Kadie. She was a university lecturer before giving up work after child number three. Yet the family haven’t had a foreign holiday in ten years and their house, though it has six bedrooms, is heavily mortgaged and literally falling apart.
‘Every penny of our money goes on music. We haven’t decorated for years, as you can see (the plaster is flaking off the walls), the tiles are coming off the roof. We never buy new clothes. I do the girls’ hair myself because it’s too expensive to take them to a salon. Our car is a wreck.’
Sheku was only able to enter the Young Musician contest, it emerges, thanks to the kindness of a retired luthier (a maker of stringed instruments).
Frank White made an extraordinary loan — an entire package of instruments for the family, worth tens of thousands, including Sheku’s first full-sized cello.
‘This could not have happened without him,’ Kadie says. ‘What would we have done without him? What do other families do? I don’t know. One of Sheku’s strings can cost £80. A cello bow can be £2,000. Then there are the trains, the sheet music, the overnight stays.’
It all rather supports the idea that normally you have to be stinking rich to be an elite musician — and nowhere is this more obvious than in the hallowed corridors of the Royal Academy.
‘There are some kids from state schools but most come from the private sector and, yes, I am very aware of that when I walk in with a hole in my shoe,’ says Kadie.
But when I suggest that they are making an extraordinary sacrifice for their children, both parents look surprised.
‘No,’ says Stuart. ‘We could spend our money on a fancy car but we think this is more important. And even if none of them ends up becoming a professional musician, it will have been worth it.
‘Playing an instrument teaches them discipline, self-belief, the importance of hard work. It gives them confidence. As a parent, the joy is seeing them play together, or play on a stage. They blossom, and that confidence spills over into every part of their lives. I don’t think we will ever look back and say “that was money wasted”.’
Nonetheless, the issue of music provision in schools is a hot potato with them. It is ‘woeful, inadequate and all wrong’, says Kadie.
‘I got free one-to-one lessons at school, and I didn’t have a fraction of the talent my children have. They haven’t been entitled to any one-to-one lessons.’
Save for a few small council grants, the Kanneh-Masons have had no state help, although the support of schools — particularly the comprehensive Trinity Catholic School in Nottingham — has been vital.
‘It’s a very unusual school. They are big on orchestras and “normalising” classical music,’ says Stuart. ‘A lot of teenage boys, especially, feel it isn’t “cool” to play an instrument. Mercifully, ours never felt that.’
Meanwhile, race was never much of an issue for the Kanneh-Mason family — until recently. Kadie’s family are from Sierra Leone, in West Africa; Stuart’s from Antigua, in the Caribbean. At school the children were always part of a mix of cultures. In the classical music world, though, they became increasingly aware that they were rarities.
‘There are a few more of us now, but at the start in the Academy, the only black faces were ours,’ says Isata. In the past few years the older Kanneh-Masons have all started to play in the Chineke! Orchestra, Europe’s first professional orchestra made up solely of black and ethnic minority players.
Stuart believes that a change is coming, though, and is proud that his family are at the heart of it. Photo: from left – Sheku (17 years old), Isata (19), Braimah (18), Mariatu (6), Konya (15), Jeneba (13), and Aminata (10 years old).
‘I remember it being a huge thing when the first black footballers played in the old First Division. Now look at how many black players there are at the highest levels. It takes time but it does happen, and it will.’
And how does Sheku feel about being an overnight role model for black kids? Quietly passionate, as ever, it seems.
‘If I can be part of a change, then yes, it’s a good thing. There’s no reason why an orchestra shouldn’t have the same sort of ethnic mix as you see on any street in London or Nottingham. The colour of your skin has no bearing on how well you can play.’
They are possibly the most extraordinary family I have ever met, and to watch where they go from here will be fascinating.
Two of the younger siblings, Konya and Jeneba, are already planning to enter the next Young Musician contest, which will take place in 2018.
They haven’t got one yet, but one suspects the family might need to buy a trophy cabinet sooner rather than later.
Read this amazing story in full in the Mail here: