Exclusive: Why Chineke! won’t play the National Anthem

Exclusive: Why Chineke! won’t play the National Anthem

News

norman lebrecht

October 03, 2022

The British diversity youth orchestra, founded by the double-bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku, has been one of the most vibrant additions to the national classical music scene since its inception in 2015.

The high point in Chineke!’s short history was an invitation this summer to the elite Lucerne Festival. The orchestra arrived in Switzerland two days after the death of Queen Elizabeth.

Young musicians in the orchestra suggested they should open with the National Anthem as a mark of respect, or perhaps a minute’s silence. A similar proposal was put forward by the festival management.

Nwanoku refused, saying the Queen represented a British Empire based on racism and the oppression of players’ ancestors. Her comments were heard – and confirmed independently to Slipped Disc – by both British members of the orchestra and the Swiss festival administration.

One orchestral aide asked if it was not odd that Nwanoku should retain her honour as a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) that she volubly disparaged.

UPDATE: Nwanoku had not travelled to Lucerne as she was attending her daughter’s wedding. The exchanges were conducted by email and copied to the tour management, Askonas Holt. Proof of the exchanges exists in a paper trail.

In the end, Nwanoku agreed that the orchestra should make a solemn addition to its concert, an Othello Suite by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The soloist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, played a solo tribute of his own.

Chineke! is funded by the British state through Arts Council England. Nwanoku draws substantial fees for her involvement. It would have been courteous, to say the least, to acknowledge the nation’s mourning at its prestigious concert.

The incidents described here were witnessed by many people, who testified to Slipped Disc. We asked Ms Nwanoku for a response to various upheavals at Chineke! and are waiting to hear from her.

Comments

  • Industry Insider says:

    This is exactly why orchestras and other arts initiatives that exist to support causes should never be run by an egoist.

    This kind of hypocrisy will be criticised on both sides of the new diversity culture war, but the ones who will suffer greatest are Chineke!’s musicians.

    Chineke! is not Chi-Chi, and Chi-Chi is not Chineke! – This is what the Board needs to get across as quickly as possible.

  • Adrienne says:

    “the oppression of players’ ancestors.”

    Has she actually checked that, or is it just another lazy assumption? No ancestors from slave trading Benin, for instance?

    • No Sarcasm says:

      The history of the African disapora is something that may people of Black descent know. It is relevant to families and lives now, not just dead history.

      Why would this surprise anyone? Why would you brng up Benin and not the Carribean? You let yourself off easily and demand high standards from others, it seems.

      • Adrienne says:

        “The history of the African disapora is something that may people of Black descent know. It is relevant to families and lives now, not just dead history.”

        I’m fully aware of what is relevant to families of African descent, and what isn’t. Thanks all the same.

  • Anonymous says:

    No respect. I see the identity politics garbage from the US has now made its way all the way to the UK. I’m sure her majesty appreciated the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. But then, what do you expect from an orchestra that puts diversity above all.

    Attention needs to be paid to who is funding these organizations. The Arts Council England is I presume more interested in funding diversity, inclusion and equality than for funding an organization that’s fundamental goal is striving for excellence. The problem is not that such organizations should be funded, but that these pet projects are given priority over organizations with more merit.

    Beware UK. A huge part of the reason classical music in America is dead is because the arts organizations have been for years hollowed out with masqueraders. Masqueraders that put special interests in front of the art form. Race, LGBTQ+, anything but music from old white men. You know, those terrible old white men that wrote 99% of the music dubbed a classic.

    Our woke world today.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    Good reporting here . She needs to send the award back

  • Anonymouse says:

    She is a deranged woman who is more racist and discriminatory than her so-called “oppressors”, which apparently include anyone who seeks to disagree with her. The music, not ethnicity, should be the most important thing. Strip her of her awards and her funding, and actually support ensembles which still have meritocratic ideals at heart…

  • Dave says:

    The UK doesn’t have a national anthem; the ceremonial dirge is all about the privileged head of state, not the country (which seems to be a minor consideration to “the [royal] firm”). Something else more appropriate was played, so what. And despite all the performative mourning that many would have forced on us all at the time, people are entitled to have their own opinions, no? How to square that with an empire gong, that’s tricky though.

  • Bone says:

    The equivalent of kneeling by sports figures in the US.
    Ignore them and eventually they move on to another outrage.

  • SVM says:

    As a republican, I support Nwanoku’s stance on this particular matter, and wish that she had not even made the “solemn addition” (only a genuine tragedy or the death of a great musician or the death of someone closely connected with the orchestra should warrant that kind of tribute). Had I been in Nwanoku’s shoes, I would have also declined the CBE when offered, since accepting it entails kneeling before a hereditary monarch, the existence of which is an affront to meritocracy and democracy. Arts Council England funding originates ultimately from the taxpayer, not the Windsor family (who are our biggest benefits scroungers). Personally, I do not want my taxes supporting a hereditary monarchy in any shape or form.

    • Elizabeth Owen says:

      You don’t kneel that’s only for knights! Bow or curtsey or even bob will suffice.

    • Helen says:

      Indeed, let’s have more democracy. The Arts Council in particular should be run on a more democratic basis.

      The problem, of course, is that the money wouldn’t end up where a lot of people here think it should.

  • Robin Smith says:

    Very good to see investigative journalism is still alive today. Well done Slippedisc.

  • Caractacus says:

    Utterly disgraceful. Hand back your CBE or shut up about the empire and racism. Otherwise your activist stance just becomes hypocrisy.

  • andrew says:

    I bet you won’t hear from her, so save your emails, Norman. In her view, like the Pope and Sir John Pope Hennessey before her, she thinks her opinion is the only one that counts, and therefore she is never wrong. Keep documenting the cases of blatant disrespect whilst taking the public money / honours, though. Much more newsworthy than Yuja’s latest dress or where’s Anna updates, good though these must be for your hit rate.

  • Rustier spoon says:

    Once again…oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. One wonders just how far one can dig oneself In and still function…

  • Serge says:

    You could make a bet: The orchestra with “diversity” in its name will be the only one not to honour the Queen. As said repeatedly before: Having “diversity” in your name is the same as when a country has “democratic” in its name. This is just about the ego of the Irish double bass player Nwanoku. Now, this is good journalism. More of this, please.

  • John Chunch says:

    Why play the anthem of such a violently racist people? Kudos to Chineke.

  • STEPHEN BIRKIN says:

    Chi-chi Nwanoku is clearly a well-balanced person – with a chip on each shoulder!

  • Paul Johnson says:

    She’s right but on that basis she should not have accepted her honour.

    • DE says:

      …. but she also accepted the MBE in 2001, and the OBE in 2017 (as well as the CBE in 2022) – hypocritical maybe??

  • msc says:

    Fine. Let them operate without any funding from the British government.

    • Emil says:

      Does one have to play the national anthem to be British? I thought part of being in a democratic society was to avoid compulsory demonstrations of loyalty to The State (and its monarch).

      • Mick the Knife says:

        Let’s just say you have to do more than just take the free money.

        • Emil says:

          Ah? Does the state have the right to state what we can express now? So can the BBC invite republicans or is that also banned? While we’re at it, can a council-funded museum stage an exhibit criticising the police or the government?
          Could a university course read a text criticising the British Empire and Queen Victoria? (wait, never mind, I know the answer to that one) While we’re at it, what about playing catholic music on BBC3? Does that also offend the monarchy and the state religion?

          How much do you want the State to decide what you can and cannot say?

          • Piston1 says:

            Ah yes: another day, another sermonette from Emil, of Montreal…..this would be a good time to remember that Ralph Vaughan Williams turned down a knighthood, twice.

          • Emil says:

            Oh, you can absolutely point out that wearing CBE while denouncing the empire appears inconsistent (although I’d also note that a CBE does not buy loyalty, and that given the status-based hierarchy of British society, refusing a knighthood comes with a cost that it might be unfair to expect people to bear alone – simply put, there’s a difference between RVW and Nwanoku).

            I’m responding to a comment tying Arts Council funding to loyalty to the state and the monarch. Don’t impute to me things I don’t say.

          • Hayne says:

            “Does the state have the right to state what we can express now?”
            I guess you haven’t heard of censorship of anything but the narrative in mass media and big tech…

        • No Sarcasm says:

          “Ask not what you can do for your country, but what in the ____ has it ever done for you?”

          –Norman Cook’s Beats International

          <3

      • No Sarcasm says:

        I’m British, I’m almost fifty, I’ve never sung it and never will.

        On the other hand, God Save the Queen is one of the few Sex Pistols songs I love. “We’re the flowers in the dustbin…”

  • Derek H says:

    It is acknowledged that the Queen devoted her life to service for the UK and Commonwealth.

    It appears mean spirited and small minded to refuse the suggestion of the young musicians to show respect.

    Chi-chi Nwanoku shouldn’t let her self righteous ego get in the way of good judgement.

    • SVM says:

      A lot of people have devoted their lives to service for the UK and other parts of the world, and have done far more with far less than Elizabeth Windsor. Most of these people go almost completely unrecognised in their lifetimes, with their demise commemorated only by family, friends, and acquaintances. Rather than lobby for extreme special treatment for one vastly privileged woman whose only significant achievement was to be born to the right father, perhaps Derek H could make a constructive suggestion as to how we can better recognise the “service” of the innumerable people who have to earn a living? Of course, they should receive more recognition, but it would surely be impractical for that to take the form of a special tribute upon the demise of any such individual in all concerts given by all British orchestras anywhere in the world (which seems to be what Derek H feels is required in order “to show respect”).

      A more practical approach is to focus on commemorating people with a substantial connection to the orchestra/ensemble/soloist or the victims of a major disaster. Those kind of tributes can be truly touching, and can include people “behind the scenes” of whom the audience might not have heard but who made a sustained and distinctive contribution (for instance, a few years ago, I recall two different singers in two separate recitals dedicating a short encore to the memory of the same vocal coach).

      • Derek H says:

        SVM,

        I respect your right to your views and it is clear, as a republican, that this matters to you.

        I am not talking about that aspect but the fact that the orchestra and festival wanted to remember the queen on her the passing, which was an historical event for the UK and beyond.

        All I am suggesting is that it is rather mean to refuse their wish for a minute’s silence or anthem at that time. It has nothing to do with how we remember other people.

  • Hayne says:

    We are surprised because…?

  • Michael James says:

    What are these people going to do when they discover that the British Empire was wound up some decades ago?

    • Kenneth Griffin says:

      You seem to have hit on the nub of the matter.

      Many decent people now accept these various “E” awards because there are very few remaining British overseas territories. So, the nose is now held and the “E” is generally viewed as an empty historic name.

      But the late Queen, in her early reigning years, represented a much more substantial British Empire. For example, as late as 1992, after the Bath electorate had democratically rejected Chris Patten as their MP, he was foisted upon the people of Hong Kong as their Governor.

  • Russell says:

    Do those who prefer democracy not have any rights?

  • Simon Scott says:

    People who knock the British Empire should remember a few points: We gave these countries which were still in the dark ages a life and an infrastructure. Of course, now it is all finished and just look at the mess some of these places are in.

    • No Sarcasm says:

      “Civilising the saves” and “white saviours” — super big-brained takes, backed up by highly accurate historiography, no doubt.

    • SVM says:

      You do realise that “the mess” was facilitated by the UK and other so-called ‘developed’ countries encouraging the newly independent governments of the former colonies to borrow a lot of money with strings attached, often taking the form of requiring these ostensibly independent countries to agree to trade deals that were seriously prejudicial to their own interests, whilst turning a blind eye to corruption and embezzlement. Then, when these countries were no longer able to service the debt that had accrued, the lenders forced the governments to impose regressive policies that jeopardised the health, food security, educational opportunities, and living standards of the populace. To be honest, you can see the same phenomenon in some European countries as well.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    What’s ‘diverse’ about an all-black orchestra?

  • Paul Kershaw says:

    She was quite right. State subsidy certainly doesnt mean an arts organisation has tto go out of its way to make a royalist statement. Her point about the empire is quite right – the report doesnt deal with why its pretty obvious that this would come from an ethnic minority based article. Her accepting the empire baubles is another point. Perhaps numerous arts figures who accept them talking about doing so as a recognition of the work of fellow artists or whatever while actually holding critical views should also hand theirs back?

  • Mick the Knife says:

    I’ll never pay one thin dime to hear this group in the US! Not a supporter of political agendas hiding behind arts. Music is supposed to bring people together yet this furthers the divisiveness.

  • William Evans says:

    Did Nwanoku not realise that her MBE, OBE, and CBE are, respectively, Member, Order, and Commander of the British Empire? If she so depised Britain’s colonial history, she should never have accepted these awards. If the scales have only just fallen from her eyes, sge should graciously return the awards and cease using the CBE in the headline on her personal website. (Or would that be one ‘sacrifice’ too far for the ’cause’?)

  • Clive says:

    Either the CBE should be removed or her funding. Preferably both.

    British tax payers are paying for this divisive disrespect through our ‘right on’ virtue signalling weasels at the Arts Council.

  • PC58 says:

    Good on her. No one should be forced to play the National anthem!! When her orchestra is invited to lend a veneer of diversity to the Lucerne Festival, what they want is a diversity of skin colour only, not a diversity of opinion.

    How could you seriously expect players like this with their ancestry and our current widespread knowledge of British history to lower themselves in deference to King/Queen – and they are not even playing in the UK!! It’s shameful that they could be asked and that so many here can’t see how degrading it would be to them to play the national anthem.

  • Herbie G says:

    And to cap it all, Chi-chi is a candidate for being Controller of BBC Radio 3!

    It seems that her mother was disowned by her maternal grandparents for having a relationship with a non-white man. The family willingly made their home in this country. Chi-chi went to a grammar school in this country and she then studied at the Royal Academy of Music in this country. She became a member of a foremost chamber ensemble in this country (the Nash Ensemble) and then founded an orchestra in this country.

    She willingly accepted three imperial honours from this country, having made a very successful musical career in this country. She has worked as the principal double bass player in many of this country’s foremost orchestras.

    Despite all that, she won’t allow the orchestra that she founded in this country to play the national anthem of this country.

    This country is by no means perfect but she has benefitted hugely from its largesse. Her response is to denigrate its institutions and support a Marxist movement that aims to de-fund our police forces. Again, they are far from prefect but just imagine life without them!

    If she thinks she could do any better in any other country, she is free to pursue her career elsewhere.

    On reflection, I am beginning to hope that Chi-chi gets the BBC job. She would surely have to sever all her connections with the Chineke! orchestra for this and could hardly ruin R3 any more than the present incumbent. This would mean that Chineke! would have to find another principal who could re-structure the board of trustees, filling the vacancies created by the spate of resignations and thereby assuring the orchestra’s future. I care far more about this orchestra than the antics and future of its founder.

  • Antwerp Smerle says:

    I find this very sad. Chi Chi is a wonderful musician who can inspire her colleagues to surpass themselves and produce unforgettable performances of works such as Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet and his Octet.

  • No Sarcasm says:

    The royal family are rich from the blood-money of Carribean slavery. Why should any rational person pay homage to them if they do not feel patriotic, or are not monarchists, or have roottts in enslaved populatons?

    Nobody is trying to stop others from singing the silly song, but honestly I am almost fifty and I’ve never sung the anthem and never will. Nor would I ban or cancel it, were it up to me.

    People need to respect others.

    • Anonymous says:

      Why don’t you post details about your life and the organizations over your lifetime that you’ve received money from. We can all pour over the details and inequities of where you got it and what it means for society.

      But oh, you preach that “people need to respect others?” Sure, ok.

      • No Sarcasm says:

        Why say such an immature thing?

        I respect your different views and don’t think you need to go out of your way to please me. You’re the one angry, in spite of being in a clear majority.

        Not impresed. Plus I have mostly worked as a subcontractor, nobody can gainsay my cash. No work, no pay.

    • Clive says:

      “I am almost fifty and I’ve never sung the anthem and never will. Nor would I ban or cancel it, were it up to me.”

      You’ve posted this dazzling c.v twice now. Thank you for being so gracious in allowing our National Anthem to continue when your imaginary nomination for Supreme Dictator comes good.

  • Tamino says:

    When I visited Kenya, the majority of Kenyans I talked to held opinions in the spectrum of ‚bottomline the British rule brought us many good achievements and bettered our lives… And we want our children to study in Europe or the US.‘

    I wonder where Mrs. Nwanoku sent her children for studying. Did they study in Nigeria?

    She sounds like a divisive racist to me.

  • Unvaccinated says:

    I agree with Chi-chi Nwanoku. The royal family and the national anthem should be ditched as soon as possible. Unfortunately the UK has a two faced prime minister who said words to effect regarding the royals but once in power changed her mind. Elizabeth did nothing but wave, patronise and drive around in a range rover, all at everybody else’s expense. With castles, enormous mansions, unbelievable wealth, the royals are no longer compatible with the reality of food banks, cost of living crisis, NHS failure, housing crisis etc etc and have to go!!

    • Helen says:

      “but once in power changed her mind”

      No, she changed her mind a long time ago, as she was growing up.

      Not uncommon.

  • Robin Blick says:

    A a republican, I couldn’t care less
    whether musicians want to play the national anthem. But as an opponent
    of racial apartheid, I would like to know why has this orchestra not been prosecuted for excluding musicians with white skins.

    • Cathrin says:

      They don’t exclude musicians with white skins. If you actually attended their concerts, you’d see this for yourself.

      • No Sarcasm says:

        In some people’s minds the UK is really suffering a whitey-shortage, and we’re all sobbing over it.

        “It’s *THEM* who are the racist ones!” they wail, lurching desperately into another Archers marathon (the drink and the soap simultaneously, ofc).

        • Ellingtonia says:

          No one is sobbing over a whitey shortage as you put it. What we are pissed off about are the iniquities of putting together an orchestra based on specific ethnic identities. And if all these ethnic musicians are “that good” surely they will be competing, and no doubt successfully, for positions in major orchestras where selection is based on merit! have a look at all there Asian musicians playing in orchestras in USA and Europe.

          • No Sarcasm says:

            So why not put together an all-Tory, all-male, all-white, all-over-45, all-cricket-watching, all-Archers-listening, all-blue-sweater-wearing, all-gammon-loving orchestra and prove everybody wrong? I promise, I won’t make snide remarks about your funding if and when bro.

            All this “merit” stuff is hilarious: “All is for the best in this best of all posssible worlds!” as Pangloss was wont to observe.

      • Robin Arthur Blick says:

        My objection stands, because as its website makes very clear, recruitment to this orchestra is based on racial criteria and not purely merit.

      • Robin Arthur Blick says:

        My objection stands, because the orchestra’s website makes it very clear that recruitment is made on the basis of race, not merit.

  • Simon Scott says:

    I have read and contributed to this thread and while I believe fervently in free speech I get rather incensed when people make comments under fake names. I have a word for this practice: Cowardice. If you have anything to say at least sail under your own colours.

  • sonicsinfonia says:

    They are a youth orchestra now? I do no understand the adulation heaped upon Chineke! The performances of standard repertory, easier to compare to performances of other orchestras, have been bland and satisfactory at best. Programmes consist of a lot of second-rate music, selected, as are the orchestra’s players, based on their ethnicity, not necessarily their talent.

  • Max Raimi says:

    In the US, the practice of playing the National Anthem before sporting events began during World War I. There was a lot of resentment about Major League Baseball continuing in 1918, about men being paid to play a game while their contemporaries were bleeding and dying in France. So they started games with the Star Spangled Banner to address this. It didn’t work; the baseball season was shut down a month early. The Chicago Symphony, with an almost entirely German-born roster, also started playing the Anthem before every concert and for the first time conducted their rehearsals in English, not German.
    I’m not sure what playing a national anthem ever proves. It seems rather performative, although there have been some stupendous pre-game versions by Jimi Hendrix, Jose Feliciano and others. I can’t help but notice that some of the most enthusiastic proponents of this ritual are also among our most reluctant taxpayers. That said, I myself have performed my arrangements of it with viola ensembles from the Chicago Symphony; it’s fun to be on the field.
    With all that it going on in the world, surely there are more worthy controversies with which to gin up outrage.

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