Critically-acclaimed teen cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason talks to Shelley Carter about number one albums, heroes and giving back
Last year, teenager Sheku Kanneh-Mason became the first black BBC Young Musician of the Year in the competition’s 38-year history. He won the Royal Philharmonic Society Young Instrumentalist Prize and the Southbank Breakthrough Award. He also performed Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah at the Baftas and has been invited to play again this year – the first time a musician has been asked back ever.
Sheku played at Downing Street as part of Black History Month and made his BBC Proms debut with Chineke, Europe’s first black and minority ethnic orchestra. Now he’s teamed up with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and its celebrated musical director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla on his debut album, Inspiration which is number one in the classical album charts, number 18 in the pop charts and is the best-selling release by any British newcomer across all genres this year.
Recorded in Birmingham and Nottingham during two CBSO concerts conducted by Mirga, Inspiration is a collection of pieces that have inspired Sheku’s career so far. It includes Shostakovich’s cello concerto No.1 – which is the piece that propelled the young cellist to fame in the BBC Young Musician competition ¬– as well as his version of Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry and Pablo Casals’s Sardana, with fellow BBC Young Musician winner Guy Johnston.
Working with Mirga was a joy and Sheku describes her as ‘really incredible’. He’s flattering about the CBSO generally saying: “It’s one of the best orchestras in the world.” Symphony Hall is one of his favourite places to play too. “The acoustics are amazing,” he explains.
Days after completing the album, Sheku flew to New York to debut at Carnegie Hall in a charity gala, The Children’s Monologues directed by Danny Boyle appearing alongside A-listers such as James McAvoy, Anne Hathaway, Ewan McGregor and Susan Sarandon. Speaking of A-listers, Sheku has attracted many famous fans over the past year including Stephen Fry, Eddie Redmayne and Prince Harry to name just a few. So, life’s been a bit of whirlwind of late which he describes as ‘thrilling’.
A student at the Royal Academy of Music, Sheku has never thought about doing anything else. His siblings, of which there are six, are all exceptional musicians – you might have seen them en masse performing on Britain’s Got Talent or in BBC4 documentary, Young, Gifted and Classical: The Making of a Maestro – so playing an instrument just felt natural. Sheku initially picked up the violin aged six, but after a month decided he’d go bigger to out-do his violinist older brother and plumped for the cello.
By age nine, he’d reached Grade 8 with the highest mark in the country. He recalls: “I had an amazing teacher and I always enjoyed performing. Even then I thought I’d be doing it for the rest of my life. It just felt normal.” Weekly trips on the 5am train to London on a Saturday so the children could go to the Royal Academy of Music were the norm and while his parents made sacrifices to ensure there were lessons, instruments and books, Sheku never felt pressured. “I always wanted to be a musician.”
Sheku is absolutely passionate about creating better opportunities for young people of any background to learn music. He had a state education and values the opportunities he had, but with budgets squeezed and increased pressure on schools, the arts seem to be the first stage of the curriculum under threat. Sheku has become a Junior Ambassador for music education charity London Music Matters. Of his role he says: “I would love to inspire more diversity in young people taking up classical music – it would be a really wonderful thing if I could be a role model in that way.” He has also donated some of the proceeds from his concerts to his old school in the Midlands after learning that cello teaching could end there. Sheku admits that as a black child going to a classical concert you don’t see anyone who looks like you in the orchestra which he’d love to see change too. Being part of Chineke! which Sheku’s family have been on board with from the beginning is a start. Sheku comments: “Having lots of role models to look up to is inspiring.”
Heroes include Bob Marley who Sheku grew up with and listens to a lot when he’s not listening to classical. In fact, Sheku’s haunting version of No Woman, No Cry reached number two on Spotify’s UK viral chart and top 10 globally. Another hero that Sheku sadly never got to meet was Jacqueline du Pré whose family said recently that she’d have loved to meet him, ‘He’s the first cellist since Jackie who has that natural and vibrant abandonment when playing. A sheer delight. Jackie would have loved to meet him.’
Sheku was thrilled. He tweeted: “A lovely quote from Jacqueline du Pré’s family! Jacqueline is one of my major influences – she is an inspiration to many cellists and musicians and has been my hero for many, many years.”