How Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason are reinvigorating classical music

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Photo credit: James Hole
Photo credit: James Hole

It is rare for multiple family members to share an exceptional talent for music from a very young age – but when they do, they make history. From the Bachs and the von Trapps to the Wainwrights and the Bee Gees, a new family of musical prodigies has been added to the list: the Kanneh-Masons.

The eldest of the seven siblings Isata, who is 25 years old, and 22-year-old Sheku were both just six when they first picked up their instruments – the piano and the cello, respectively – and very soon after, they began to join forces. “When I started playing the cello, I was fascinated that there was unlimited scope to explore this instrument,” says Sheku. “I remember really wanting to join in with people, that was something I was always excited about. We’d listen to tunes and try to create our own versions.”

In 2015, Sheku and Isata, along with their brother Braimah and sisters Konya, Jeneba and Aminata, shot to fame when they reached the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent; and the following year, Sheku became the first Black musician to win the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year award since its launch in 1978. Three years later, the siblings performed at the 2018 BAFTA ceremony, and that same year Sheku captured the nation’s hearts when he played at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. He has since recorded two critically acclaimed albums, and toured the world in between completing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music, where Isata also attended. In 2013, she performed with Elton John in LA, and her debut album of 2019, Romance, topped the UK classical charts.

Not all musical siblings work so harmoniously with each other (the Lloyd-Webbers and the Gallaghers come to mind), but refreshingly the Kanneh-Masons find joy in collaborating, says Isata. “It’s the freedom and spontaneity that Sheku and I can have, because we’ve played together so many times. For me, that’s what’s the most enjoyable.” Sheku adds: “I’ve always felt that when someone plays, many aspects of their personality come through. If you get on with someone as a person, you’re very likely to get on musically.”

This energy is something they have sought to bottle up in their new album Muse, their first together, in which they play sonatas by Russia’s Sergei Rachmaninov and the American composer Samuel Barber. “We had a few months of performing and enjoying the pieces before covid,” says Isata, “and we still felt like there was so much more we wanted to express with them.” Sheku explains that the choice of repertoire was prompted by how successfully the well-loved Rachmaninov sonata worked with the lesser-known Barber in concert. “Both pieces have a vivid and intense connection with emotions,” he says. “Rachmaninov does it in an incredibly detailed and patient way; for Barber it’s immediate. They’re different in that sense, but their arcs complement each other really well.” Indeed, Sheku and Isata draw their listener into that emotional world with exceptional nuance, sensitively balancing restraint and lightness of touch with dynamic vigour.

While their parents Kadiatu Kanneh and Stuart Mason both played instruments in their childhood, neither pursued music as a career; born in Sierra Leone but moving to Wales as a child, Kadiatu lectured in English at the University of Birmingham, while Stuart – whose family is from Antigua – works for the luxury hotel group Belmond. But a profound love of music meant that their children have grown up listening to Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven, as well as “a lot of Eighties music, classic R’n’B songs and Bob Marley”, reveals Isata – all of which they say still feeds into their imaginations, if not directly into their playing.

Photo credit: James Hole
Photo credit: James Hole

“We didn’t really have an idea of what it was to be a professional musician,” says Sheku of the siblings’ journey to success. “We kind of just discovered it along the way. We worked hard, and got lucky in many cases, whilst we stumbled along the road to where we are.” That element of luck could be attributed to the “really good musical education” the siblings were afforded at their state school in Nottingham, which they consider to have been pivotal to their progress. They lament the recent cuts to the funding of music across the UK for dramatically restricting the accessibility of the art form. “We think it should be a core subject alongside English, maths and science, and those that have not been cut,” says Isata. “Having that space to be creative is just so incredibly important for the overall development of a child.”

Classical music in particular has often been criticised for being too ‘pale, male and stale’, and the Kanneh-Masons are determined to shift this perception. Their mother Kadiatu wrote in her memoir last year, House of Music, that in encouraging her children’s talents, she was determined “never to remark on the lack of Black people in classical music”. But now, Isata says the family is aware of their influence within the industry – but, of course, “it has to be much bigger than that”. “The more that music is made accessible for all, and not such an expense, the wider the range of people that are able to participate, therefore the more diversity we see,” she says. “People tend to want to be what they can see, so it becomes a cycle. The more diversity there is within the industry, the more that young people can see that, and the more they then feel inspired to take up instruments.”

Sheku also believes greater emphasis should be placed on the venues in which this kind of music is presented. “Sometimes classical musicians think they have to play a pop song to engage a new audience, but in some ways it’s more valuable to perform this great music in a setting that is more comfortable for a certain audience to come and see,” he says, citing positive experiences playing the Frank Bridge cello sonata, “which is not seen as an accessible piece of music”, in less-traditional venues.

Both Sheku and Isata have their individual idols within the industry – for Sheku, it is the cellist Jacqueline du Pré “for how vividly she plays: it’s so committed and so expressive, there’s no pretension, it’s always really honest”; Isata’s is the pianist Martha Argerich. “I love her boldness and her stage presence, as well as the amount of detail she has in every piece,” she says. As Sheku and Isata speak of their heroes, I cannot help but think that it won’t be long before future stars of the classical world name them as their own.

“Music has the power to reach parts of ourselves that are not easily accessed, and express certain things that are not easily expressed with words,” says Isata – a sentiment Sheku shares. “It has a way of connecting or understanding emotions, people, the world and situations – particularly if it’s music from a different time,” he says. “Although it’s quite abstract, music is such a direct medium in which we can access all of these things if we allow ourselves to. It’s a very, very powerful thing.” When listening to Muse, it becomes increasingly clear with each track just how powerful music can be.

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s ‘Muse’ is out on 5 November.


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