The People's Friend
Garry Fraser tunes into the musical talents of the Kanneh-mason family
The Kanneh-masons are a family ensemble raising the bar in musical excellence. Garry Fraser hears more.
THE musical world has seen many family combinations, but never has there been anything like the Kanneh-mason siblings.
Isata (piano), Sheku (cello), Braimah (violin), Konya (piano and violin), Jeneba (piano and cello), Aminata (violin) and Mariatu (cello and piano) are carrying all before them, as explosive and impressive a group classical music has ever seen.
Sometimes one or two of a family can stand out among their peers as being something special, but all seven of them?
They surely are a musical phenomenon, from oldest to youngest, with each following his or her route to the top.
And once they get there – and mark my words, they all will get there – classical music, or music in general, can enjoy their musicmaking for many years to come.
It all stems from natural ability, fine tutorship to hone their talents and the encouragement and support from mum Kadiatu and dad Stuart.
Both were keen amateur musicians, but are content to watch their family bloom into global superstars.
“There’s the idea of the musical gene,” Braimah, who is currently studying violin at the Royal Academy of Music, says.
“You inherit much from your parents, but we grew up with exposure to music at school and then began learning instruments from a young age.
“Our parents encouraged us and were incredibly supportive and totally involved.
“As well as our parents, we have been fortunate enough to have an incredible support network from the outset.
“Walter Halls, our primary school, and our secondary school, Trinity, both of which are in Nottingham, really valued and championed the cause of music in education and made us feel what we were doing was something valuable and special.”
The word “prodigy” can be often over-used, but each of the Kanneh-masons started playing around the ages of five or six.
Some musicians might burn themselves out, but this ensemble shows no signs of faltering.
Indeed, the opposite could be said about the siblings.
Appearances on TV shows like BBC’S “Strictly Come Dancing” – one which Braimah called “an extraordinary experience” – regular performances with the world’s top orchestras and recording their first album are all in a day’s work for them.
During the lockdown months of 2020, when live performances were impossible, the family weren’t content to sit back and relax.
They drew huge audiences through their performances on Facebook, streamed from their family home in Nottingham.
From this came Kadiatu Kanneh-mason’s first book, a memoir called “House Of Music: Raising The Kanneh-Masons”, which was published in September 2020 by Oneworld.
The Kanneh-Masons were put firmly on the musical map in 2016 when Braimah’s younger brother, Sheku, shot to fame by winning the 2016 BBC Young Musician Of The Year.
He became a household name when he played Leonard Cohen’s
“Hallelujah” at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex two years later.
When not playing as a full septet, the older three siblings – Isata, Braimah and Sheku – perform as a piano trio.
Chamber music is an intimate form of performance, but Braimah reckons this threesome has an extra edge.
“The more you know the people you are playing with, the easier it is to play together.
“There are people who have known each other for many years who can do it as well as siblings, but for us I suppose we have that inbuilt benefit!
“Playing music with my siblings will always be a joy, but all of us as individuals have our own plans and ambitions which we are working towards.”
Braimah has another string to his bow, leaving the world of classical music aside for a moment.
Few folk can alternate between master classes with a world-class artiste like Tasmin Little and appearances on “Top Of The Pops” and the “The X Factor” with Clean Bandit.
“Performing with the band was a great fun and a unique experience. It was certainly very different from what I had been used to.”
Along with their startling performances comes a certain amount of hype, but that is more than justified.
James Waters, director of the Bath and Lammermuir Festivals, knows the family well.
“Having met them on a number of occasions, I have found them to be utterly delightful,” he says.
“Their parents keep them very grounded and bear no resemblance to pushy parents whatsoever.
“Even without the hype, Sheku would still have become a world star.
“When I engaged him for the 2018 Bath Festival I was aware that in parallel with his own career he was also part of the most extraordinary family. They are simply a phenomenon.
“I’ve never come across an ensemble like them, and with energy, commitment and sheer technical brilliance I can’t see why they can’t rule the classical roost for many years to come.” ■