Chineke! is Europe’s first black and minority ethnic orchestra. Founded by Chi-chi Nwanoku, its artistic director and the principal double bassist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the ensemble is made up of independently active musicians who come together especially for projects. The name derives from a word in the southeastern Nigerian language of Igbo, which predates Christianity, and can be defined variously as God or the spirit of all things good. The ensemble made its debut in September in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall; the occasion felt both exciting and long overdue.
I got in touch with two members of the Chineke! Orchestra, the American-born, Irish-based clarinetist Berginald Rash and the Sri Lankan-English violinist Mandhira de Saram, to talk about the new ensemble, civic responsibility, and musical origins.
VAN: Outside of Chineke! you organize the concert series Vivre Musicale. How did this project get started?
Berginald Rash: It’s the brainchild of me and my good friend, Jorge L. Toro. During our undergrad we put on our first chamber music recital, which was the initial seed that would later germinate into Vivre Musicale. However, it didn’t officially come into existence until 2009 when Toro and I, along with a few colleagues of ours, put together a series of chamber concerts in Baltimore. The energy was exciting, fresh, and electric. VM has only recently relocated to Dublin though it’s formally incorporated and has non-profit status within the United States. Dublin continues to be a testing ground as VM seeks a permanent home where it and its founders can grow personally and professionally. It could well be that place, but only time will tell.
Organizing Vivre Musicale, you put a lot of emphasis on social and civic responsibilities. How does that play out in your day-to-day operations?
We pride ourselves on our diverse artistic team: our associate director is Peruvian, our collaborative pianist is Korean, our composer-in-residence is Irish, and our board of directors is comprised of mostly women, with two black American women and a Portuguese woman along with Jorge and I.
Our mission is to intrinsically foster access to our concerts. It’s about a care and concern for the community and each other, regardless of societal markers that may divide.
Could you tell me a little bit about your musical background?
The journey to where I am now has been rocky, tumultuous even. There have been profound moments where I’ve had to ask myself, What am I doing? Should I be doing this? Why am I doing this?
Ever since I can remember I’ve always been interested in music. I started singing in the church choir when I was very young; then I sang in my school choir and did solos with them. I sing and have always done so because it made me happy. It’s a form of self-soothing, healing, and communion.
When I was 10, I started learning the tenor saxophone—I wasn’t sure what instrument I wanted to play, but my music teacher at the time swore it was the right one for me. Later I picked up the clarinet and took lessons with several amazing teachers. I feel like the journey is really just beginning, everything else was training.
How would you sum up your involvement with Chineke! and what does it mean to you?
Chineke! was exactly what I needed, when I needed it. It reminded me why I do what I do, and that there is indeed a place for someone like me in this gigantic canon of Western art music. Through the group I’ve met some really great artists who love classical music as much as I do, and who also happen to look like me. They play at an incredibly high level and maintain unflinchingly high standards. They are the current and future tastemakers of the classical music world, and I am fortunate to call them my friends and colleagues.
The energy at Chineke! was positive and familial. I felt encouraged and renewed by the experience. I’ve spent a lot of time pontificating on the status of diversity within the classical music realm: the paucity of black and brown faces in orchestras across the globe, on the podium, as concerto soloists, or among composers.
My feeling is that through Chineke! I’ve been a part of history. I’m like a freedom rider for classical music, showing would-be black and brown artists a way through the underground railroad into the beautiful light of classical music. Of course, I say none of this to diminish the real impact of the true freedom riders and civil rights activists, who risked and sacrificed their lives and livelihoods so that I might be able to sit comfortably at my computer in my living room and have this chat with you; but I do feel that history is being made and I’m blessed to play a small part in that.
Could you tell me a little bit about your musical background and education up to this point?
Mandhira de Saram: I started studying with my grandmother in Sri Lanka when I was five, and then I began taking lessons in England when I was 12, continuing through my teenage years. Although my early years were as a classical musician, I was also exposed to South Indian and Sri Lankan music. Throughout university and as a professional I have been involved in pop, rock, and jazz collaborations. So I’ve supported my technical and musical growth with a great variety of music that I love.
What are you working on right now with the Ligeti Quartet?
In 2016 we’ll be hosting a concert series at St. John’s Smith Square in London, and for this we have commissioned Christian Mason and Elliot Galvin. Christian is writing the first of several “songbooks” inspired by throat-singing from around the world. Ellliot is writing a piece for the first concert in our SJSS series in February inspired by the rest of the program—John Zorn’s “Cat o’ nine tails,” Schnittke’s Quartet No. 3 and Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge.”
We have to be imaginative and think outside of the classical music box, not just in terms of the actual music we play but in its physical and conceptual context. For example, this year I’ve played at established concert venues as well as in pubs, clubs and even on a fishing boat on the Thames Estuary.
How would you sum up your involvement with the Chineke! Orchestra?
It has been a wonderful experience for me. As I’m sure a lot of members of the orchestra and the organization would say, it is creating new performance opportunities and some outstanding education work. It has also opened up new friendships and an orchestra which almost feels like a large, ever-expanding family.
What kind of educational projects are you involved in at the moment?
The quartet and I work with university students, teenagers, and young children. This could be as basic as introducing kids to string instruments and a taste of our repertoire, or it could be supporting budding professionals by recording student compositions and leading composition and performance workshops. Early next year I will start some work with the Newham music hub, which is launching a new orchestra for 16 to 25-year-olds called the Newham Philharmonic. I will be helping audition the strings and then coaching them for their Barbican debut in April, playing Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, no less! The quartet also sometimes works with London Music Masters, introducing our instruments and ourselves to children at primary schools in less privileged areas of London. It is exciting and challenging. Classical music by its very nature can be thought of as elitist, but it is so important that we give kids a real chance at it and support their musical development. ¶