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.
Chi-chi Nwanoku, 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.
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