How British-Nigerian, Chi-chi Nwanoku Formed Her Own Orchestra


For Chi-chi Nwanoku, coming up with the right name for her new minority orchestra was a stressful experience.

Though Ms. Nwanoku had quickly formed a board of directors and had already selected most of her players — 62 musicians representing 31 different nationalities — she was constantly reminded that it would be hard to promote their first concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre, London, in September 2015 or to even set up a website without a name.

She knew she did not want it to be the Such-and-Such Philharmonic or the Something Symphony, and the recent trend for orchestras to take Latin or Greek names also did not inspire her. But the night before one of her board meetings, the name came to Ms. Nwanoku, a double bass player who grew up in Britain, where she was classically trained.

“I literally sat bolt upright in my bed at 4 a.m. and I just shouted ‘Chineke!’” she said, referring to a word from the Nigerian Igbo tribe, which was her father’s clan. “In Chinua Achebe’s book ‘Things Fall Apart’, you see the word ‘Chineke’ every now and then, with people exclaiming it when something amazing happens. It means ‘wonderful’ or ‘wow’.”

The next day, when the board members asked her the inevitable question about a name, Ms. Nwanoku told them and explained the meaning behind it. The board loved the idea.
“My dad would be smiling that this Igbo word is being said by everybody,” said Ms. Nwanoku, who has Irish ancestry on her maternal side. “And it means something so positive.”

Since that first concert, the Chineke Foundation — which includes both Europe’s first professional orchestra made up entirely of minority musicians from across Britain and Europe, and also a junior orchestra — has had a strong impact not only on the musicians involved, but also on the audiences.
The first concert in 2015 during the Africa Utopia festival sold out, and fans lined up outside the concert hall hoping to get in. The performance last year, held at the Southbank’s larger Royal Festival Hall, which seats over 2,000, was also hugely popular.

This year the orchestra has a number of performances, including a concert this past Sunday, St. George’s Day, at St. George’s Bristol, a former church turned concert space. In May, some members who have performed with the Sphinx Organization, a nonprofit organisation based in Detroit that is dedicated to the development of black and Latino classical musicians, will appear in a musical showcase in the Netherlands.

“Chi-chi is a force of nature, and what she has been able to do in a short period of time, it has been fantastic,” said Afa S. Dworkin, the president and artistic director of Sphinx. “The response has been undeniably positive throughout the musical community.”

Ms. Nwanoku came up with the idea after attending a showcase of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kinshasa Symphony at Africa Utopia in 2014. It reminded her of a conversation she had had with Ed Vaizey, then Britain’s culture minister, who said that whenever he attended a symphony or ensemble where Ms. Nwanoku was performing, she often was the only member of a minority on stage.

Ms. Nwanoku has played with some of Europe’s leading chamber orchestras and was a founding member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in London. “All of the orchestras I have played in, I have always been the only person of colour for 35 years,” she said, adding that many British orchestras go into minority and ethnic communities to perform and educate on classical music.
After the conversation with Mr. Vaizey, and noticing that the audience for the Kinshasa Symphony performance was almost entirely white, she decided to do something.

She soon began recruiting professional musicians from across Britain and Europe, including those with Indian, Bangladeshi, Caribbean, African, Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Iranian backgrounds. Within months, Chineke’s professional orchestra was booked to perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
“Chi-chi managed to get things organized very fast, but you know she was a sprinter,” said Simon Rattle, the artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic and a longtime friend, referring to the fact that Ms. Nwanoku was a competitive runner until age 18, when she was injured.

“We want to spread the word that classical music is for absolutely everybody,” Mr. Rattle said. “And of course, we need orchestras to slowly and surely start looking like the communities in which they play.”
Five days before Chineke’s debut, the musicians practised together for the first time, and though they were a bit unsteady at first, they quickly found their feet. “It was the first time that many of us felt that no one was the odd man out,” Ms. Nwanoku said. “At the end of the day, everyone was embracing.”