The first notes of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto unfurl quickly, jauntily, an attack on the strings made all the more startling by the quiet background stirrings of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. A capacity crowd at the Royal Festival Hall lean in as instrumentation is pared down and the post-World War I piece transforms into a melancholic dirge, its hues inspired, state the program notes, by the light on the countryside surrounding the composer’s rural Sussex home.
All eyes are on the young guest soloist sitting on a platform next to the conductor, his fingers moving over the strings of a 1610 Amati cello, a black jacket with emerald green lining draped over the back of his chair. His face is turned heavenwards, lids close and lips compressed. His hair is a neatly trimmed Afro.
It’s likely many in the predominantly white, middle-aged crowd have come just to witness 20-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason. His mesmerising take on Elgar’s haunted masterpiece, originally performed in the same month 100 years previously, is rewarded with whoops and applause that bring him, smiling and bowing, back onto the stage five times.
“My parents would play a CD of this concerto on family car journeys,” Kanneh-Mason tells me during the interval, in a backstage corridor bustling with well-wishers. A famous British baritone. A booking agent from Japan. Representatives from his record label Decca Classics. His manager (“Sheku is music,” she sighs). His mother, father, aunt and brother: I’m told that wherever he performs, there’s always at least one Kanneh-Mason in the audience.
“I remember being six or seven, looking out the window as we drove along and feeling blown away by Jacqueline du Pré’s  version of Elgar,” he says with a calmness that belies the extremes he was just channelling. “I think I related to the humanity in the music, this feeling you can be broken and lonely as a person, not just proud and grand. Later, when I read about Elgar, this vulnerable English gent with a big moustache and very different background to mine, I related to the humanity in the man.”
As a bell signals the start of the second half (featuring the London Philharmonic on its own), I wonder if he’ll comment, quickly, on the notion that a musician should have experienced suffering – heartbreak, say – to truly interpret a sorrowful piece. He smiles, nods. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and I think young musicians can be just as moving and valid if they come at the music with a high level of connection and creativity.
“I might play differently when I’m older,” he says before disappearing into his dressing room, flanked by his brother Braimah, 21, and some friends, “but it doesn’t mean I can’t have the same level of communication now.”
Even without the benefit of heartbreak, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a phenomenon. Awarded the title of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2016 after clinching the competition final with his passionate rendition of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, the centrepiece of his big-selling 2018 debut album Inspiration, he achieved global fame after playing at the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
As adept a soloist as he is a chamber musician and orchestral player, Kanneh-Mason is working at the very top of the classical music world. He made his US orchestral debut in 2018 with the Seattle Symphony, and this year has been a guest soloist with the Orchestre Philharmonic de Radio France, the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra at the Concertgebouw and the Japan Philharmonic at the Vienna Musikverein. He has played the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms, and Wigmore Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York for recital performances. And he’s destined for our shores: long-time Australian impresario Andrew McKinnon has snapped him up for a nationwide tour that begins in Brisbane next August and involves concerts with his musical siblings in five capital cities. He will also perform solo at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music Festival in Townsville that month.
Add viral social media posts of his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and his own classical arrangement of Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry, a slew of accolades including Male Artist of the Year and the Critics Choice Award at last year’s Classic BRIT Awards, his elevation in the British media as a poster boy for classical music, his role as a lobbyist for music education, and it’s no wonder Kanneh-Mason – dubbed “cello bae” on Twitter – has the Royal Festival Hall crowd enthralled.
That he is a black musician in a traditionally white arena makes him even more remarkable. That he happens to be one of seven siblings – he and Braimah have five sisters – who all play music to a staggeringly high standard almost beggars belief.
“Look, that’s him! Should we go over and say thank you?” In the Festival Hall bar, into which much of the audience has emptied after Kanneh-Mason’s performance while the London Philharmonic plays on inside, two older white-haired women have spotted the cellist sitting in a circle of friends and family. He’s drinking beer and laughing at something Braimah has said. In his jeans and Adidas trainers, he might be any other hipster youth hanging with his mates.
Standing nearby, chatting to another couple, are his father and mother: UK-born Stuart Mason, a rangy luxury hotel manager whose parents hail from Antigua in the Caribbean, and Kadiatu “Kadie” Kanneh, petite and braided, a former English literature professor, daughter of a Welsh mother and a father from Sierra Leone, where she was born and lived until the age of five, when her father died and she and her mother moved to Wales. The two female fans have decided to let him be (“People in classical music tend to be polite and older,” Kanneh-Mason later says), when Mason checks the time and grimaces, telling his wife they’d better hurry if they are going to catch their train.
Chairs scrape, goodbyes are chorused and hugs passed around before Kanneh-Mason’s parents and Aunt Rhonda, his father’s similarly long-limbed sister, jog-walk off towards the exit, bound for the two-hour journey north to Nottingham in England’s East Midlands.
A city with a strong multicultural legacy, Nottingham was one of the original hubs, along with London, for the West Indian workers who arrived on the SS Empire Windrush in 1948, encouraged by British government campaigns aimed at Caribbean countries at a time of severe post-war labour shortages. These arrivals precipitated a wave of immigration that saw nearly half a million Caribbeans arrive in Britain in the years up to 1971. The injustices of last year’s Windrush scandal, when thousands of Caribbean migrants were told they were in Britain illegally despite having lived, worked and in some cases, been born in the country, continues to enrage. Various high-profile black Britons including Stormzy – a star of the hard-hitting electro-dance-rap genre known as grime, and like Kanneh-Mason a previous recipient of the South Bank Sky Arts breakthrough award – have used their platform to speak out.
“I hope you reconsider this and boycott the royals 2 protest the deportation of […] your fellow citizens in the Windrush scandal,” came a riposte to @shekuKM’s tweeted announcement in April last year that “I’m so excited and honoured to perform at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding … What a privilege. I can’t wait!” When asked about it, Kanneh-Mason responds vaguely and hesitantly. “I’m political in the sense of caring about people and the world. I like to change things in the best way I can, which is usually through music.”
Stuart Mason’s father, an amateur violinist and orchestral player, emigrated to London from Antigua with his wife in 1958 and found work as a bus driver (“They had to work hard and that ethos definitely transferred to my parents and me,” Sheku tells me). Mason grew up in the capital before meeting Kadie Kanneh at Southampton University on England’s south coast and relocating their lives to Nottingham. Both had studied music in their teens, Stuart the cello and piano, Kadie the piano, clarinet and violin. From such cultured, middle-class but never well-off beginnings (Stuart also has a master’s degree in mathematics) came their decision to give piano lessons to their eldest child Isata, then six, now 23, the catalyst for the Von Trapp vibe to come.
“Isata was very bright and needed something else to do,” says Kadie Kanneh-Mason, who gave up teaching literature at the University of Birmingham after the birth of her fourth child to parent full-time. “She mastered each [piano] piece in about 10 minutes flat, which set the tone. The others all had a real thirst to learn and got such inspiration from each other that they all just progressed very fast.”
Crotchets and quavers have been flying around the Kanneh-Masons’ six-bedroom home in the Nottingham suburbs for years now, what with daily two-hour-or-more practice sessions in bedrooms and living rooms, in bathrooms and under the stairs. Kadie has always batted away accusations of hothousing: “This lot play like they breathe.”
Now look: pianist Isata is a former BBC Young Musician finalist whose 2019 album Romance topped the UK Classical charts, while Braimah, a violinist, is an occasional member of the Grammy-winning dance-pop group Clean Bandit. Having swapped from violin to cello aged six, Sheku was nine when he achieved his cello Grade 8 (the UK music exam system has a grade 1 to 8 scale) with the highest marks in the country. The three siblings play together as the Kanneh-Mason Piano Trio, though it is Sheku, followed by Isata, who attracts the most public attention – even if, as his mother remarked after his BBC Young Musician victory, “It could have been any of them.”
Konya, 18, is a pianist and violinist; Jeneba, 16, is a pianist and cellist; Aminata, 13, is a pianist and violinist. All the Kanneh-Mason children have their Grade 8s in one or two instruments aside from nine-year-old Mariatu, who is preparing for her Grade 8 on cello.
“Is this the most talented family in Britain?” marvelled judge Simon Cowell in 2015, when the six eldest siblings appeared on popular TV show Britain’s Got Talent. No matter that they lost to a performing dog. While Kadie had made a point of never mentioning to her children the paucity of black people in classical music, their impact was immediate, their desire to bring classical music to a wider audience palpable.
A combination of factors helped the Kanneh-Masons circumvent the expense attached to playing high-level classical music, where a cello string can cost $150 and a cello bow upwards of $3800. Local music teachers and education trusts offered free or affordable lessons and workshops. A retired luthier named Frank White gifted the family a package of instruments including Sheku’s first full-sized cello, and the rare 17th-century Amati he uses is on permanent loan from an anonymous donor. All the children were educated in the state sector, in a mix of cultures at schools including Trinity, an unusually progressive Catholic secondary that prioritises classical music and orchestras.
On Saturdays there was the Royal Academy of Music, which Isata, Braimah and Sheku all attended on junior scholarships. From the age of nine to 17, Sheku would wake at 4.45am to catch the 6.30am train from Nottingham to London, where his tutor was Ben Davies, a freelance cellist working across early music, opera and contemporary and popular music. “Our approach was always creative, looking for clues, enjoying the details,” remembers Davies, who also taught Jeneba and is currently tutoring Mariatu. “There was never any small talk with Sheku. He communicated with his cello.”
With his cello on his back, Sheku Kanneh-Mason pads into the carpeted patrons’ room at the Royal Academy, the UK’s oldest music conservatoire dating from 1822, located on busy Euston Road fronting Regent’s Park. His body language is easy and at home, as it might be in an institute he’s been frequenting since childhood, and which he now attends on a full-time scholarship. Its hallowed halls are also home to Isata, Konya and Braimah, with whom Sheku shares a flat in north-west London.
“Hello again.” The firmness of his handshake is surprising, given his profession. I tell him I’ve interviewed guitarists who’ll only fist-bump in case they hurt their fingers, that concert pianist Lang Lang reportedly has his hands insured for something like $100 million. “You can injure yourself chopping vegetables,” he smiles. “Of course I’ve got to be careful not to break a hand but as long as I’m not doing reckless things, I’d rather do the stuff I love doing. Playing football. Enjoying my life.”
Of course I’ve got to be careful not to break a hand, but as long as I’m not doing reckless things, I’d rather do the stuff I like doing. Playing football. Enjoying my life.
He rests his cello’s sleek white carbon fibre case under a painting of Queen Elizabeth II, one of several portraits hanging of the British royal family. Royalty has always loved classical music. And right now does it ever love Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
Sitting on a hard red velvet couch, he says the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was a great opportunity to play for a global audience, and he was touched by the thank-you letter sent by the newly married Duke and Duchess. It was the first wedding he’d been to. He enjoyed listening to the choir who sang Stand by Me, and learnt a lot by watching American bishop Michael Curry, whose sermon preached love and quoted Martin Luther King Jr in the passionate, uninhibited style of the African-American church. “I related the way he spoke to playing music. The timing and delivery and free use of repetition, the way a sentence can be viewed a different way if used twice. All those engaging skills can be …” His words trail away.
“Sheku is definitely more uncomfortable when it comes to public speaking or speaking to strangers,” says his sister Isata. “Though in a family setting, he’s always making jokes and messing around. Equally, he’s probably one of the more comfortable of us when it comes to performing on stage with his instrument.”
Nerves never bother him, he agrees. The cameras, lights and live audience at Britain’s Got Talent helped prepare him for the televised pressures of the BBC Young Musician finals. His 2017 BBC Proms debut as a soloist was buffered by the presence of the Chineke! Orchestra, a ground-breaking ensemble of black and ethnic minority musicians with which Kanneh-Mason and his family have a special relationship, and smoothed the way for his 2019 BBC Proms turn playing Elgar with the Birmingham Symphony.
Kanneh-Mason is at his most articulate and unflappable when he’s playing, says Paul Bullock, executive editor of the biennial BBC Young Musician of the Year. “The big conversation you get from Sheku is on his cello because he’s living in the music,” he says. “He and music have a natural relationship. There was an incident in the competition where he sat down to play a piece of Bach and a string broke. He just looked at it, then got up, got it sorted, sat back down and started over.”
Which was all the more impressive given that of all the music in his repertoire, the work of J.S. Bach – that deity of classical music – is Kanneh-Mason’s least favourite to perform on stage. “What’s the best way to say it?” Kanneh-Mason rubs his face. “I play Bach on my own a lot, but not often in public. When I do, it feels uncomfortable. As if I’m embracing someone in a private room but watched by an audience. It feels too intimate.”
He adds that this is nothing to do with his age or lack of life experience and/or heartbreak. He tells me he’s currently single. What qualities does he look for in a partner? Would he prefer to date another musician? “I don’t know. Someone who’s interested and interesting? They wouldn’t have to be a musician.” He bristles. “Of course not.”
As BBC Proms director David Pickard points out, the late famed British cellist Jacqueline du Pré was herself only 20 when she recorded her legendary, uninhibited version of Elgar: “But any artist will look back in 10 years’ time and think, ‘Oh, I play very differently now,’ ” he states. “Sheku would be the first to agree he has lots to learn, and he is being very careful about what pieces he introduces to his repertoire.
“The fact he’s doing the Elgar a lot demonstrates that he is building his repertoire year by year. The last thing you want for a young artist is to burn out quickly by doing too much improperly. I’m sure as he performs the piece throughout his career he will continue to find new things in it and change the way he plays it.”
Not long after our last meeting comes news of Kanneh-Mason’s forthcoming second album, Elgar, a collection of works recorded with the London Symphony and its musical director, conductor Simon Rattle, and anchored around the Cello Concerto. He makes no mention of this when we talk, even when referencing Elgar among his earliest musical memories: “That was the most played CD in the car,” he says. “Second was probably [Vladimir] Ashkenazy playing Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, and Itzhak Perlman playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.” A shrug. “They’re still my favourite pieces, I think.”
Does it bother him that classical music is, at its core, white people’s music? That even with screened auditions for entry into conservatoires such as this one, even with the likes of Chineke! showcasing black composers including Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the 18th-century’s so-called “Black Mozart”, the demographic hasn’t changed that much over several hundred years, either on stage or in the auditorium?
Where jazz music has increasingly returned to its black roots, to the history of race in America and Britain – black London outfit SEED Ensemble, for example, recently subverted Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk in its Mercury Prize-nominated album Driftglass – classical music is still arguably anachronistic and snowed in.
“I was watching a video of Yo-Yo Ma talking about where the different parts of the cello come from,” responds Kanneh-Mason, who cites the great American cellist, 64, as a major inspiration. “The wood on the bow from Brazil, the hair on the bow from Mongolia, the fingerboard from Africa or, um, Indonesia. If you look at it that way, then it doesn’t matter where [you’re] from. What matters is how an individual responds and performs.”
It’s easy to see why Kanneh-Mason is being hailed as the new Yo-Yo Ma. The latter was also a child prodigy, performing before audiences at the age of five and for presidents when he was seven, studying at the Juilliard School and soloing with major orchestras as a teenager. A humanitarian and musical adventurer, his career spans 90 albums, 18 of them Grammy winners. In August 2018, his most recent album, Six Evolutions, shot to No. 2 in Britain’s Classic FM charts. At No. 1 was Inspiration by Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
Music education is Kanneh-Mason’s passion. He is an active ambassador for London Music Masters, a children’s charity that aims to ensure equal access to music lessons. “Sheku visits our six London primary schools [in disadvantaged areas of inner-city London] and is a big hit with the kids, who see someone who has performed on the world stage, for royalty, who has celebrity fans and is truly excellent,” says CEO Rob Adediran. “In the classical world, he is prominent because of his ethnicity but in our inner-city schools, that’s normal. By extension it makes our children feel included in the arena of highly skilled performance.
“Sheku could fill his diary with big events,” he continues. “The fact that he carves out time to go and inspire the next generation is pretty incredible.”
When he’s not playing music – and with a rehearsal scheduled for immediately after our interview he’s already shooting glances at his cello – Kanneh-Mason reads biographies of classical stars such as Yehudi Menuhin. He checks out the clothing designs of his friend, Nottingham-born Paul Smith, who made the suit (with mauve floral tie) he wore for the royal wedding and the jacket (with emerald lining) he wore at Festival Hall. He watches the TV series Black Mirror, snacks on fried plantains and has a laugh with Braimah.
Who would he like to meet, if he could meet anyone, alive or dead? Bob Marley, whose poster is on his bedroom wall? Stormzy, hero to a zillion kids his age? “Martha Argerich,” he says, not missing a beat. “Argentinean pianist, legend of classical music. Or Daniel Barenboim [the pianist and conductor, also in his 70s, also born in Argentina]. Can I have two?”
Our time is up. Kanneh-Mason stands, shakes my hand and makes for his cello. He and a few fellow students are learning some jazz and klezmer for a low-key performance, he explains. He is trying things out, learning new repertoire, discovering what else he can do.
Which is all part of his endgame, or at least part of how he sees himself developing over the next 20, 30 years. “I’d love to still be performing around the world, playing to audiences who want to listen and getting to know as much music as I can. Inspiring young people who look like me, who come from backgrounds like me, to play classical music.” He flashes a smile. “Yeah.” And with that, he hoists his cello onto his back and pads off into his future.