Cello lovers are perhaps most familiar with the name Kanneh-Mason from star cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who rose to global fame after playing at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But did you know that Sheku is one of seven extraordinarily talented and hard-working musical siblings?
Now fans can learn more through his mother’s beautifully written memoir. Dr. Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason’s House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons offers an inside look at one of the world’s most musical families.
Playing Music Doesn’t Have an End
The prologue immediately draws in readers by dropping us into the 2016 Final of the BBC Young Musician at the Barbican London, where her son Sheku, who just turned 17-years-old, is about to compete.
But his youngest sister, Mariatu, is worried sick about her brother. Mariatu, then six years old, is in tears, and her mother has to rush her to the restroom in the interval before he performs. She asks her mother:
“But Mum, what if Sheku doesn’t win? What will he do? I can’t stand it.” – p. xiii
Her mother wisely tells her:
“Playing music doesn’t have an end. And we’ll look after him.” – p. xiv
Looking to the Past: It Has Taken Generations
After this opening scene, Dr. Kanneh-Mason turns to her family’s history and to that of her husband, Stuart. She shares glimpses into the lives of their parents, grandparents, and siblings. Why?
“It has taken generations of love and sacrifice to create the conditions and the confidence for our children to be classical performers.” p. 53
When Dr. Kanneh-Mason and her husband were children, although they both studied music and grew up in families who greatly valued music, there was no clear path for them to become professional classical musicians.
Building on what they learned from their parents and grandparents, they became trailblazers for their own children. When her husband, Stuart, won a scholarship to study music, he declined because he had
“no roadmap and there were no role models, and none of the family understood what specialist music school would mean for [him].” p, 51
When their own children were growing up, they
” looked for role models in classical music, but in the UK at that time they were hard to find.” – pp. 84-85
Their role models included Jaqueline du Pré, Itzhak Perlman, Maxim Vengerov, and others, but they did not stop there.
“Beside them we placed Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, tales of escaping slaves, Bob Marley, African music, reggae, rap, Welsh male choirs, Country and Western, Welsh folk singing, all entered the house with equal status. It didn’t occur to the children that there was a door they couldn’t open or a hero they couldn’t emulate.” – p. 167
“If you know where you are from, it will be harder for people to stop you where you are going.” – Matshona Dhliwayo
Family history is an important part of this memoir. Her parents had met as students – her mother was from Wales, and her father was from Sierra Leone. At age twenty-two, her mother boarded a ship to Sierra Leone to get married. After their wedding,
“she woke up the next morning in my father’s village, in a small house with a tin roof and a crowd of children peering through the window at the first White woman in the family.” – p. 3
Her mother settled into village life, and Dr. Kanneh-Mason and her three siblings were born there.
She Asks Important Questions
Dr. Kanneh-Mason addresses racism directly, eloquently, and with positivity when looking to the future. In this book, Dr. Kanneh-Mason speaks with love, asking questions. The prologue references an article in The Times by Julian Lloyd Webber before Sheku played in the BBC Young Musician Final saying that:
“It brought to the fore what everyone had been thinking. How did a young Black boy from a state-funded school in Nottinghamshire get to this prestigious Final? And why was he the only one – ever?” – p. xi
She gracefully addresses these questions throughout the book, sharing her family’s stories of persistence and commitment to their music while supporting one another to overcome obstacles.
She Fearlessly Confronts Racism
Dr. Kanneh-Mason does not shy away from telling about racism her family has faced. But instead of showing anger in her descriptions, she is direct in her approach and shows fearlessness in confronting these issues that we must discuss to eliminate them in our world today – even though such racism caused her pain and isolation, particularly as a young child.
After the death of her father, she moved to Britain with her mother and three siblings to be closer to her mother’s family. She states flat out that
“Britain in the 1970s was a cruel place to be Black and mixed race.” – p. 8
With her move to Britain, she not only had to live with the devastating loss of her father, but she also had to adapt to living in a new country. These two factors alone would have been extraordinarily stressful for anyone, particularly for a child. But on top of this, she faced discrimination from both children and adults:
“Here, children laughed and shouted at us in the street . . . We went to the sweet shop every week . . . The kind old ladies would smile indulgently at us as we chose what we would buy . . . One day, they began praising my mother for her charity in adopting these little Black children from Africa. Mum explained that we were her own biological offspring. They stopped smiling after that and they were no longer nice.” – pp. 8-9
Her husband and his parents faced racism in the UK as well.
“Stuart’s parents came from Antigua to London in 1958 . . . He saw the humiliations they had to endure: doors slammed in their faces when they went to view houses to buy, neighbours turning their backs, subtle blocking of their ambitions at work. But they had the gift of family and community, and they stood together.” – p. 46
An Outlook of Love and Hope
In spite of all of the challenges that she and her family faced, Dr. Kanneh-Mason remains positive for her own children and their future. Her book is full of love and hope for the next generation.
“As an immigrant to the UK I had always felt as though home was a place based on loss. The children would have to be better than everyone else in order to be deemed equal, and they would have to work twice as hard. I try to shield the children from my own grief and the psychological damage that racism inflicts on a child.” – p. 30
She could not help but be affected by the pain and struggle she’s had to endure. However, she used her brilliant mind and remarkable outlook to learn from her experiences and use them to work toward creating a better world for her own children. She truly believes
“Hope for the future rests in how we raise our children and how we listen to each other.” – p. 296
Music Education in Schools is Essential
Dr. Kanneh-Mason drives home the importance of providing music education in comprehensive schools (what we call public schools in the USA). Unfortunately, under financial pressure and a culture of high-stakes testing, school authorities in both Britain and the USA are cutting music education, which affects not only the musical training of students but also their academic performance.
The Kanneh-Masons are living proof that a strong music program in schools can produce world-class results. Unfortunately, even the comprehensive school where her children were students, Trinity Catholic School, has since
“undergone a restructuring of power that imposes ideas from a new, distant authority, and funding for music has been harshly slashed. Consequently, the academic prowess of the school, along with the sense of pride and of collective endeavour, is under threat. The confidence and self-worth that the older children gained in the school should be available to everyone for the generations to come.” – p. 140
If we want to create a more equitable world, I believe we must start with education. Music education should be accessible to all. One of my own cello teachers told me he wished cello lessons could be free for everyone who wanted them.
Unfortunately, even after music proved to be essential to people’s mental and spiritual health during the pandemic, music continues to face cuts in schools.
Talent Alone Does Not Create Success
Aside from her directness and her fearlessness in discussing racism and discrimination against immigrants, what I liked most is this book’s affirmation that talent alone does not create success.
So often, I hear people talk about the talent of great performers as if this alone were the key to their success. While it is clear that the Kanneh-Masons are blazingly talented, they have also worked extraordinarily hard. This includes the whole family – not only the children but also Dr. Kanneh-Mason and her husband.
Dr. Kanneh-Mason’s tale is not a breezy stroll from children placing in – or winning – the BBC Young Musician to performing at the BBC Proms. On the contrary, their monumental success came after numerous struggles and an enormous amount of hard work.
One of the reasons we chose this book for our May book selection – May being the month of Mother’s Day in the USA – was to highlight the role of musical mothers who sacrifice so much to support their children. Of course, this counts for many fathers, but as this book is by a mother, we wanted to highlight her perspective.
Although I have focused mainly on Sheku in my examples here, I encourage you to listen to the performances of his siblings as well. Carnival, their 2020 family album, was a great success. His sister, Isata, a pianist, released her latest album, Summertime in July 2021. Isata and Sheku have a new album together due out in November 2021, and Jeneba recently performed at the BBC Proms.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about what it takes to raise or become a classical musician. I particularly recommend this to parents of music students. If those who have the power or influence to keep music education in schools read it, it could change lives.
This is a book about the Kanneh-Masons, but it contains more universal truths and shows us a bigger picture as well. This book illustrates why music in all schools is essential, how role models can change lives, and how much work, sacrifice, and love goes into nurturing young musicians.
“This is a tale of music, and, above all, this is a book about love.” – p. 296
About the Book
- Title: House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons
- Author: Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason
- ISBN-10: 0861540298
- ISBN-13: 978-0861540297
- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Oneworld Publications (August 31, 2021)
- Language: English
Who are your role models, and how have they influenced your life? Please tell us in the comments.
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