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The Kanneh-Masons: Bio

Only a year and a half ago he was the first black winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year award. Now 18-year-old-cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason is on his way to becoming a household name. In his own household, however, he is one of many. His family home, in a quiet Nottingham suburb, has the character of a naval vessel: hectic, large but lived-in (one room contains nothing but floor-to-ceiling board games), with each sliver of space pulling its weight to accommodate Sheku, his parents, and their six other children.

When I arrive, a few days before Christmas, they are all at home and the result is disorientating. The eldest daughter, 21-year-old Isata, is practising the piano. Braimah, 20, is playing the violin. And I can hear sounds of further music-making. All the Kanneh-Mason siblings play an instrument to a remarkably high standard. Sheku, Isata and Braimah are at London's Royal Academy of Music. Their younger sister Konya has just won a place there. And the youngest, eight-year-old Mariatu, informs me that she will one day beat her brother at his own game. "She might manage it," Sheku muses. "She got two more marks in her Grade 4 Cello than I did in mine."

He doesn't seem too concerned. This month sees the release of his debut album Inspiration. And after the events of the past 18 months, he can feel secure in his own ability. He performed at the 2017 Bafta awards. His Proms debut with the black and minority ethnic Chineke! Orchestra went viral. Nottingham City Council even named his local bus after him, and it was while standing on board the "Sheku Kanneh-Mason", in November 2016, that he was signed to the Decca label. Nevertheless, says Sheku, "life isn't all that different. Although I'm doing a lot of solo concerts now, I'm still playing a lot of chamber music with my older brother and sister in London; we see each other all the time."

It was his siblings' influence that set Sheku on a musical path. Neither of his parents are musicians: his Sierra Leone-born mother Kadiatu used to lecture in literature at the University of Birmingham; his father Stuart, whose family hails from Antigua, works for Belmond, a luxury hotel chain. But both played instruments in their childhood. "We thought it would be nice if Isata, our eldest, played the piano," their mother explains. They didn't, however, expect Isata to be quite as talented as she was. Nor did they predict the impact she would have on her younger siblings.

"When Isata was about eight, she got into the Junior Department of the Royal Academy of Music; that was a pivotal moment," their father recalls. "Braimah and Sheku started saying they wanted to go too and, from then on, my wife and I would regularly wake up early on a Sunday morning and hear them practising in the bathroom."

Since then, Isata has continued to pave the way for her younger siblings: "By the time Sheku wanted to play an instrument, we had the know-how to find him an outstanding teacher," says Stuart. "Also, Isata herself made it to the keyboard final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, so when it came to Sheku's turn, he was able to draw on his sister's experience."

Sheku is keen to stress how much he owes to his older siblings. In fact, he is reluctant, even when pushed, to speak about his own achievements, preferring to draw attention to those who have guided him on his route. Inspiration, recorded with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor Mirga Gra?inytė-Tyla, is actually a homage: to his school music teacher, who introduced him to the Klezmer work on the disc; to Shostakovich, his idol; and to the performers he admires most.

One of his programme choices seems particularly telling: "Tears for Jacqueline", with which he pays tribute to cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who died in 1987. Many critics have likened Sheku's uninhibited musical approach to that of du Pré herself, and Sheku admits that he initially "got into the cello" after listening to her celebrated recording of Elgar's Cello Concerto. He is wary, however, of attempting to emulate her.

"I'm just learning the Elgar now, and it's very difficult precisely because of the iconic status of that du Pré recording," he says. "Her interpretation sticks in the mind. But when you look at the actual score, you can see that what she does is actually different from what Elgar has marked. It's important to decide what you don't like and find your own way."

Sheku, of course, already has a distinctive musical identity. Since winning the BBC competition, he has come to be viewed as an ambassador for young black classical instrumentalists in a white-dominated arena. Is this a role with which he is comfortable?

"If it turns out that I've inspired someone by winning a competition as a black musician, then that's wonderful," says Sheku. "For me personally, however, it's most helpful to stay focused on my cello-playing." As a child, he apparently gave little thought to the black-to-white ratio among classical musicians, despite his parents regularly taking him to concerts. That's partly because, as one of seven black siblings who all played instruments, he never considered that "what we were doing might not be normal". But it also comes down to some canny choices on the part of his mother, who was determined "never to remark on the lack of black people in classical music to our children".

For years Kadiatu has woken at the crack of dawn every Saturday so that her children could catch the train to attend the Junior Academy of Music in London. She has nurtured seven musical talents, overcoming financial hurdles along the way. Perhaps most importantly, she seems to have achieved it without damaging the family unit. I'm struck by the sense of camaraderie between the siblings. Our hour together is frequently punctuated by laughter. When the four younger Kanneh-Masons join us at the end, 17-year-old Konya sits cradling her youngest sister in her arms. "The children are competitive with each other," says their father. "When they play Monopoly together, it's awful. But my wife has been really good at getting them to be happy about their siblings' successes from an early age."

Has Sheku's celebrity affected the family? "Now that people are interested in us and want to film what we're doing, each of our concerts has suddenly become a lot more important," says his eldest sister. But Sheku himself doesn't seem overwhelmed by the pressure: he ring-fences time to spend with his friends and girlfriend, who is studying maths at University College London. And since starting at the Royal Academy of Music, he has been a member of its football team. ("We beat the Royal College last week. I'm just saying.")

His key to time-management is tactical procrastination: "If I have an hour to get ready, I'll get up in the last 15 minutes, because if you leave an hour, you'll take an hour." This hasn't, however, always paid off. "I was once rushing to catch the Sheku Kanneh-Mason bus to school, and I missed it. I saw the driver making faces at me through the window. I mean, that's bad, when you can't make the bus that has your name on it."

1 Preamble (Narration)  
2 Introduction and Royal March of the Lion (Narration)  
3 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - Introduction and Royal March of the Lion  
4 Hens and Roosters (Narration)  
5 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - Hens and Roosters  
6 Wild Donkeys Swift Animals (or Make What You Like of That) (Narration)  
7 Saint-Saens: The Carnival of the Animals - Wild Donkeys Swift Animals  
8 Tortoises (Narration)  
9 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - Tortoises  
10 The Elephant (Narration)  
11 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - The Elephant  
12 Kangaroos (Narration)  
13 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - Kangaroos  
14 Aquarium (or I Have a Friend) (Narration)  
15 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - Aquarium 2:46  
16 Characters with Long Ears (Narration)  
17 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - Characters with Long Ears  
18 The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods (Narration)  
19 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods  
20 Aviary (Narration)  
21 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - Aviary  
22 Pianists (or Who Sings Best in the Bath) (Narration)  
23 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - Pianists  
24 Fossils (or Doing the Brontosaurus) (Narration)  
25 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - Fossils 1:18  
26 The Swan (Narration)  
27 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - The Swan 2:30  
28 Finale (Narration)  
29 Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - Finale  
30 Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (Suite), Op. 71a - Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Arr. Langer)  
31 Grandpa Christmas: Every Year at Christmas... (Narration)  
32 Bartok: 44 Duos for Two Violins, Sz. 98 - Maypole Dance  
33 Grandpa Christmas: To My Little Granddaughter Miaa (Narration)  
34 Bartok: 44 Duos for Two Violins, Sz. 98 - Mosquito Dance  
35 Grandpa Christmas: I Sat There Watching You... (Narration)  
36 Grieg: Lyric Pieces, Op. 43 - 4. Little Bird  
37 Grandpa Christmas: Just to See You Digging There... (Narration)  
38 Rimsky-Korsakov: The Flight of the Bumble-Bee (Arr. Rachmaninov)  
39 Grandpa Christmas: If I Have Learnt One Thing... (Narration)  
40 Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Sea Murmurs (Arr. Heifetz)  
41 Grandpa Christmas: I Wish for You a World Where the Elephant and the Lion... (Narration)  
42 Bartok: 44 Duos for Two Violins, Sz. 98 - Maypole Dance (Reprise)  
43 Grandpa Christmas: When the Reading Is Over... (Narration)  
44 Whitacre: The Seal Lullaby (Arr. Parkin) 3:38  
45 Redemption Song (Arr. Kanneh-Mason) 3:53  
Redemption Song (Arr. Kanneh-Mason)

Decca Classics will release Carnival, a very special collaboration between Academy Award-winning actor Olivia Colman, children's author Michael Morpurgo and the seven "extraordinarily talented" (Classic FM) Kanneh-Mason siblings – Isata, Braimah, Sheku, Konya, Jeneba, Aminata and Mariatu. The brand-new Kanneh-Mason album, their first as a family, will be released on 6th November 2020.

Recorded at London's Abbey Road Studios, the release includes new poems written by War Horse author Morpurgo to accompany French composer Saint-Saëns' beloved musical suite ‘Carnival of the Animals'. The poems are read by the author himself, joined by The Favourite actor Colman, and guest musicians complete the ensemble for the suite.

Crossover Media Projects with: The Kanneh-Masons