The top musician talks about his upcoming concert at Fairfield Halls with London Mozart Players, growing up in a musical family, and picking up his MBE…
Aged just 22, Sheku Kanneh-Mason has already achieved so much. He has made his debuts with orchestras including the London Philharmonic, Stockholm Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, and has toured across the world. He performed at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex at Windsor Castle, where he was back recently to collect his MBE. He has released two albums, Inspiration in 2018 and Elgar in 2020, the latter reaching No. 8 in the UK official album chart, making Sheku the first cellist in history to reach the UK top 10. And during lockdown, he and his talented siblings (he is one of seven) performed twice weekly livestreams from their family home in Nottingham, drawing in huge audiences.
Sheku first shot to fame when he won the 2016 BBC Young Musician Competition, the first black musician to take the title, although he and his family first headed into the limelight in 2015, when the eldest children achieved semi-final success in Britain’s Got Talent. Their mash-up of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Clean Bandit led Simon Cowell to comment that they were, ‘probably the most talented family in the world’.
They are indeed a remarkable family. The seven siblings were brought up in Nottingham to parents, who while musical were not professional musicians, and went to state schools. Through their talents and hard work, they are achieving incredible things in music, including recording the album Carnival together to much acclaim. Their mother Dr Kadiatu Kanneh recently published her memoir, House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons for which, in November 2021, she won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Storytelling Award. The book describes the joys and the sacrifices of nurturing the talents of seven incredibly talented children.
Kadiatu was born in Sierra Leone but moved to Wales as a young girl and became a lecturer in English at the University of Birmingham, while their father Stuart Mason, whose parents were born in Antigua, was born in London and works for a luxury travel company. Together they instilled a passion for music in their children as well as an ethos for hard work.
Chatting to Sheku, he describes how he loved growing up in a musical household and how they all still play together when they are back home in Nottingham. “It’s what I grew up with, surrounded by people playing, and we all encourage each other…”
Sheku began learning the cello at the age of six with Sarah Huson-Whyte and then with Ben Davies at the the Royal Academy of Music. He has received masterclass tuition from a long line of acclaimed musicians including Guy Johnston and Julian Lloyd Webber. Sheku credits his ‘incredible’ teachers with his success, as well as the support of his parents, and his state schools that placed a huge importance on music.
“…Plus I’ve been lucky with some of the opportunities I have had,” he says, modestly.
Any advice for other young musicians? “Work hard. There is no shortcut but if you enjoy it then go for it. Listen to lots of musical styles and different musicians. We are lucky in that we have the Internet so we can hear anything from 100 years ago to the present day. There’s a wealth of inspiration out there…”
In February, he will be heading to Fairfield Halls in Croydon with London Mozart Players for a concert entitled A Fresh Take on Shostakovich, where he will perform the demanding Cello Concerto No. 2. LMP’s Fresh Takes series will offer an introduction by the players, conductor and soloist at the start of the concerts. The idea is that the series will please aficionados as well as bringing classical music to a wider audience, something London Mozart Players does very well, notes Sheku.
“Explaining what’s behind a piece of music adds a layer of understanding but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise the music.” He says of Cello Concerto No. 2: “It’s one of my favourite pieces – it’s not well known and it has this inner intensity.”
Sheku lives in North West London, and enjoys playing football and table tennis in his time off. For all his achievements, Sheku comes across as totally down to earth. As to his ambitions? They are modest: “It is mainly in terms of the pieces I want to learn. Or places I would love to play. I would love to play in South America. Next autumn I am touring Japan, China and Korea, which is amazing. I would love to play Sierra Leone, where my mum is from, but obviously that would be difficult.”
He recently went to pick up his MBE – he was awarded it back in 2020 for his services to music but the pandemic meant the ceremony was on hold. He took his dad along for the occasion. A very proud moment. “It was so exciting to finally pick it up,” he smiles.
A Fresh Take on Shostakovich, 13 February, Fairfield Halls
Tickets available here.