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Sheku Kanneh-Mason: “The cello is a part of you”

The 23-year-old has already played for the royals and tackled the Elgar Cello Concerto. Where does he go from here?

By Kate Mossman

Sheku Kanneh-Mason was travelling from London to Paris by Eurostar when he realised the seat next to him had been sold to a person, and not reserved for his 400-year-old Venetian cello as intended. A guard told him that the cello would be safe stashed in a cupboard at the end of one of the carriages. When the train arrived at Gare du Nord, he could not find the guard. When he eventually located the cupboard, the cupboard was empty. The cello was traced to a room in the station where international packages were stored. When Kanneh-Mason tried to claim it, they said they couldn’t hand it over without proof that it was his.

Actually, it isn’t. “I’ve never owned a cello,” says Kanneh-Mason, who played for an audience of two billion at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, performed the Elgar Cello Concerto at age 20 (just like Jacqueline du Pré), was awarded an MBE at 21 and will open the last night of the Proms on 10 September. “Am I opening?” he asks. “OK. I haven’t seen the running order.” Learning and performing on borrowed instruments, he acquired the Matteo Goffriller cello in 2021, in the midst of his run of extraordinary career milestones, and you’d assume this was because it was high time he had his own instrument. But it’s worth “a few million” he says, so it’s just on loan. Is owning a cello something one aspires to, you ask, a philistine crashing about in an alien world. “Well, it’s not realistic, to be honest,” says the world’s most unflappable classical musician, gently. Kanneh-Mason was not invited to the royal wedding reception – instead, he had a sandwich and wandered around Windsor for a while, then went home.

He sits on an antique sofa in a grand West Hampstead villa once owned by the painter John Craxton, now a music studio. He is wearing shorts and trainers. He leans forward, the sofa too deep to comfortably seat anyone with even a little shyness in their body, his wrists on his knees, his fingers given to sporadic fumbles; he would probably prefer an instrument between his legs. At the age of six, when he first held a cello, he loved the feel of the wood vibrating through his chest. “A part of you. I loved the resonance and the possibility.” At nine, he passed his grade eight with the highest mark in the country. Born in 1999 in Nottingham, the son of a business manager and a former lecturer of Antiguan and Sierra Leonian descent respectively, he is one of seven children born between 1997 and 2010, all of whom have grade eight on at least two instruments. The Kanneh-Masons have just toured Australia together as a band, where Von Trapp jokes are still being made.

[See also: Notes on the Proms]

Sheku remains strangely un-media-trained at 23, and you suspect it’s not for want of people trying, so large is the team around him. It is as touching as it is embarrassing when you listen back to the interview tape and the only voice you hear is your own. He won’t explain his musical choices with personal anecdotes, even when his new album, Song, is billed as his most personal yet, and includes a pop song, which he co-wrote. The most challenging track on it, by Messiaen, he illustrates with finger clicks and a giant effort of bow control, mimed with a muscular arm, which involves “me trying to slow my heart rate down”.

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The more political questions you might ask Kanneh-Mason – being a black, state-school musician in a rarefied white world – seem overly simplistic, because his family was a microcosm so far from the norm. It wasn’t as though he was working in a field of one, there were six musical siblings under his feet at all times. They were hot-housed – they all went through the junior Royal Academy (his sister Isata was sponsored by Elton John for her degree there) – and there were financial sacrifices – his mother has spoken of peeling paintwork – but the ascent was swift: in 2015, they arrived as a fully-formed family band on Britain’s Got Talent, and only fell out of the contest because they were reluctant to incorporate more pop into their repertoire.

One day, someone may get the juice on what a nightmare it was growing up with six brothers and sisters all playing the same instruments as one another (two of his sisters are now more into acting and writing and don’t want to be professional musicians, he says), but not today. Sheku now lives with a friend in Hampstead (“it was high time”) though for lockdown, the entire family moved back in together in Nottingham, performing twice-weekly concerts on Zoom. That must have been nice for his mum? “I think it was chaos, though…” he says. While many musicians thought touring was over forever when the pandemic hit, Kanneh-Mason appreciated the chance to practise, which he does for three hours a day.

[See also: Vaughan Williams’ vision of Englishness is not the one we need]

He recalls, with energy, the game he used to play at night with his brother Braimah, who is currently studying at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. They would push their beds together, wrap themselves in their quilts, kneel on their haunches and thrash, like blind worms, in a race to get their heads on a pillow placed at either end. He plays football in four teams: with his label Decca Records; in Regent’s Park; in Hackney; and with old friends from the Royal Academy. A boy lurks close to the surface, and it’s the way to finding out what he really thinks. Does he like Vaughan Williams, who has dominated this year’s Proms? “Not so much,” he says. “I love the theme from Thomas Tallis. But there was some composer, I’m not sure who, around the time Vaughan Williams was writing, who said that his music was like staring at a cow in a field and every so often it takes a shit.” He seems to be conflating two comments: by the composer and critic Peter Warlock that Vaughan Williams’ work was “all a little too much, like a cow looking over a gate”, and the composer Elisabeth Lutyens, who described English pastoral music as “the cowpat school”. In any case, it makes him laugh a lot.

Kanneh-Mason is not keen on pop music. At night, he will listen to a whole symphony in the dark, and is able to feel its influence while he is asleep. Someone once told me that each new recording of an orchestral work modifies and tweaks the piece in a process of eternal improvement – but Kanneh-Mason likes to listen to recordings from the 1920s and 1930s best, particularly pianist students of Liszt: “very daring, and all recorded in one single take”. He has had the theme from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf going through his head for two years, and there is nothing he can do about it.

After the exposure of the royal wedding, some critics wondered if Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s attempt at the Elgar Cello Concerto was “too much too soon” and if he was in the spotlight because the industry was desperate to be more inclusive. But the extraordinary intensity of his playing comes from a place that is still kept secret, and that is part of his appeal. Perhaps he will never reveal that part of him. Perhaps he is just young. Or perhaps he will achieve, through pure diffidence, what many black classical musicians probably most desire, which is that eventually, people will stop asking him anything about his “experience” at all.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason plays the Last Night of the Proms on 10 September. His new album “Song” is out now on Decca Records

[See also: JK Rowling’s The Ink Black Heart review: confusing, insular and far too long]

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained