Throughout her life, Chi-Chi Nwanoku, MBE, has been followed by an adjective that is as vexing as it is apt: unlikely. Nwanoku is a professor at the Royal Academy of Music and co-founder of period instrument ensemble the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. She has long been thought of as one of Britain’s most well known and accomplished double bassists. Her skill puts her in a distinct minority of the nation’s classical musicians—as does her race. She is the daughter of a British Nigerian and an Irishwoman, married together in the conservative 1950s. Last week, after a stint in Detroit judging the Sphinx Competition for minority classical musicians, she paid a visit to the South Side for a screening of a documentary about her life, Tales from the Bass Line, as well as a talk and bass master class at the University of Chicago—events organized in part by writer, film impresario, and WHPK DJ Sergio Mims. I sat down with Nwanoku to discuss the experiences of minorities in the classical music world and access to music education.
So how did this tour come to be?
The tour came to be because I was invited to be a juror of the Sphinx Competition. Sphinx is an incredible program centered around a competition—a junior and senior competition—for classical musicians, for string players: violin, viola, cello, double bass. The junior division competitors are aged under eighteen. The senior competition is for those eighteen to twenty-six, or something like that. It’s for black and Latino musicians. Specifically for those two groups of people. And they also bring together an orchestra of professionals to back the soloists who are competing. I was on the jury panel for this year’s competition, which finished on the first of February.
So I contacted a few friends and colleges in America to see if there was any other way I could be of use here for a couple of weeks. And I was met with the most incredible response of, “Yes, come to our university! Master classes, talks, workshops! And let’s see your documentary.” And my friend Sergio Mims… when my documentary was first out it received its world premiere here in Chicago in the Black Harvest Festival at Gene Siskel [Film Center], so it’s been shown already here. And [Sergio Mims] wanted it seen again here, and the talks have been tagged on, and the master classes.
Tell me more about the Sphinx program. Is it just for already accomplished minority players?
Before you go to Sphinx, you have to be seriously accomplished. So those kids, wherever they’ve come from—all over America—they’ve got to work very hard. It’s high standard. I mean the prizes are extraordinary. The first prize for the junior competition is $10,000. For the senior competition, the first prize is $50,000. So that’s an incentive. Children are studying really hard and they are having to prove beyond all doubt that they are more qualified than their white counterparts. This competition is specifically for them. It’s sort of forcing the issue by raising the standards. And one of the things Sphinx does is that, for people who get to the finals, if they’re applying for further study at Julliard and the top music academies, they’ll receive full scholarships from those academies, which is worth its weight in gold.
What about basic music education? The state of music programs in public schools has been a hot topic in education across the United States and here in Chicago for some time. Do you think governments are doing enough to promote music in schools?
In England, the music programs disappeared from the free schools—the state schools. They don’t exist now. We’re fighting to get them back. They’re at all the [private] schools. That takes care of some three percent of the school-age children in England. And one of the things I’m banging on in Parliament about is that music is everybody’s right. It shouldn’t be just a privilege just for the privileged few. And we know for a fact that learning and studying an instrument is good for you. It connects you as a person. I mean, I think even more than being an artist, or a dancer, or an athlete. Learning an instrument in which you’re reading music connects you physically and emotionally. Say you’re learning a wind instrument. It’s your hands, your fingers, the dexterity, the coordination, your teeth, your mouth, your tongue, your heart (emotion and pulse), your ears for the listening. It actually connects you as a person. And even if you’re not going to become a professional musician, I absolutely believe every child should learn an instrument at school. It wakes up all the left and right sides of the brain. For athletes, for sprinters or whatever, you’ve got incredible execution and precision in how you come out of the starting block or the pole vault. But there are all these other senses that don’t meet. As a musician, all the things that you learn, they are all transferable skills into any other job you might go into. You learn tolerance and patience with the others in your ensemble. If someone’s too loud or someone’s too quiet. You have to learn to play in harmony with each other. If we’re talking about how we live on this planet with people of different creeds, colors, genders, beliefs—and the disharmony we’re having to deal with from day to day—music provides so much that we’re just not getting. It needs to be there in everyone’s schooling.
How do you feel about the response your documentary has gotten from minority players? You talked at the screening and the discussion just a little while ago about how hard it seems to find black female strings players and double bass players specifically. And yet, at both events, there were black female double bassists waiting to hear from you. So they’re clearly out there.
But they’ve got very little confidence. There was a girl at the discussion just now—she’s not going to be playing in the master class this afternoon. She had issues and she wanted to talk to me about it and I literally had to straighten her out. Because she brought with her fears and doubts as to why she was asked to play in the master class. Was it because of her color? She’s studying ethnomusicology and speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese; she’s a clever girl. And she mentioned the fact that she was the only black person in her orchestra at the moment. And that she had felt, when the head of the orchestra wrote to all of the bass students that Chi-Chi was going to be here and to sign up for the master class, this girl decided she wasn’t going to do it because of the pressure. And the head of the orchestra wrote back saying she should reconsider. And of course this girl has taken it very sensitively. “Is it just because I’m black that she thinks I should play in a master class for Chi-Chi?” And I told her it might be a good idea to check with her other peers who decided they weren’t ready or confident enough to play. For all you know, I told her, they might have also received an email. Don’t just assume it’s because of your color.”
Every time I’ve been asked to play, if I’m free and I believe in the project and the program, I’ll go and play. If it’s a piece of music or a program I really want to play in, I will bring my whole self to something. I don’t carry around this burden—this heavy, weighted burden of class, gender, color, culture, religion—I don’t entertain it. If I had entertained it throughout my life and throughout my career, I don’t think I would have had the glorious career that I’m still enjoying thirty-five years later. I’m still having a very, very nice time, thank you very much. I don’t walk on stage carrying a weight of problems or things that I allow to be issues. The music always goes before me. When I’m playing a piece of music, I’m a servant to that music. It’s my duty to give it all I’ve got and make those notes dance off the page for the audience. No other reason.
When you first entered the world of classical music, did you connect with people who played the role you seem to be playing now—mentors for minorities looking to break in? Do minority players in the classical world go out of their way to support each other?
I hadn’t come across many people with my background—an African-Irish background. I haven’t spent a lot of time speaking to people like this apart from when I’ve been here in America, actually. There are far more people doing it here than there are in England that I’ve met. I’ve been out there on my own a lot of the time. I’ve had principals of music academies say to me, “ We’ve got so and so black students for whom you are their mentor. They are emulating you, Chi-Chi, and that student, that student, and that student has got something to aim for. They are not going to be dissuaded, because they’ve seen what you’ve done.” And that makes me feel so happy. My parents would be so proud if they were still here.
What have been your impressions of America and Chicago’s South Side specifically?
I’m absolutely knocked out by Chicago. I wrote my daughter a few days ago to say I’m thinking of immigrating! But I feel there’s a real intelligent vibe among people of African origin here—people like Sergio, the centers of research and libraries. Places like Black Cinema House, where people are being proactive and creative in a very positive way. I’m surrounded by that at the moment. I’ve been more than impressed. I really identify with the struggle here. I’ve seen more open gestures of racism here. Just a couple of glances. Not directed at me personally, but because I’m a high achiever globally.
I’ve had a couple of meetings in which I’ve had coffee with people face to face. I’ve noticed, when I’ve mentioned for example the Sphinx Competition (these people who’ve come to have a coffee with me have been white bass players, professionals) whenever I’ve talked about some of the reasons why I’m here, I’ve seen a flicker go across some of their faces. My face is full of enthusiasm and passion for why I’m here. I’m loving every moment of it. And then I see sort of a shadow of discomfort. And I’ve been slightly taken aback by it, I haven’t questioned it. I’ve just registered it and put it somewhere in my mind. And I feel sorry for those people. It’s okay for them to be friends with me because I suppose I represent success to them and someone they want a little bit of. To say that we’ve shaken hands. But when I mention Sphinx, which is on their doorstep, a very, very important organization, I’ve seen a shadow of discomfort, as if to say, “Oh, do we have to talk about that?” So I’m curious about that. I don’t understand. They should feel very, very proud of it.