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At 22, violinist Braimah Kanneh-Mason is a busy solo and ensemble performer in the UK, all while still studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Braimah is the third oldest in the Kanneh-Mason family of Nottingham, UK — the musical family that has made headlines around the world, and helped many people get through the COVID lockdown with their music livestreams from home. All seven siblings, including sisters Isata, Konya, Jeneba, Aminata, and Mariatu, and brother Sheku, the cellist who shot to fame after playing at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, play one or more instruments, and all have or are still attending the Royal Academy of Music.
For the first time, all seven siblings perform together on a brand new recording of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, with a text of poems written by Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) and voiced by Morpurgo and Crown star Olivia Colman. The album was recently released on the Decca label.
That’s just the latest project for Braimah, who performs regularly in the UK as a soloist, as well as a member of The Royal Academy Symphony Orchestra and Chineke! Orchestra. We caught up with him to ask a few questions about the project and his career.
Your parents are not professional musicians — how did you and all of your siblings come to be involved in music so seriously as children? Did one of you start lessons first?
Both our parents played when they were at school, and were both very interested in music, and when I still was six, they started [Isata] on the piano, because they both played the piano. It kind of just became a knock-on effect, and all of us joined in after we saw Isata do it because she’s the oldest.
How did the Carnival of the Animals project come together — was it challenging to put together during the lockdown? Why choose that particular work?
We all were very inspired by Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev, in which each of the instruments in the orchestra represents an animal. We feel that storytelling and music really go hand in hand, and can be very inspiring as a child.
It wasn’t challenging during the lockdown; in fact, the lockdown actually helped the Carnival rehearsing project, because we were all forced to return home to Nottingham, and we were all under the same roof. We had loads of time to rehearse. It was very exciting to put it together.
Is it easier, or more difficult, do you think, to work with all your siblings on a project like this? In many families, it would multiply the difficulties (to say the least).
I would say easier, simply because we’ve been playing together for so many years, so we know each other’s way of playing really, really well. We’ve played together many times, so we’re used to that, and so it made the process easier.
You play, among other ensembles, with the Chineke! Orchestra. How important is it to you to make more opportunities for diverse musicians in classical music? How important do you think it is to the future of Western classical music itself?
I think it’s extremely important, and I think obviously the more diverse an industry is, then the more vibrant it is. If we can have much more equal opportunity for everyone, then there wouldn’t be a limitation on those that can get involved, so I think it’s extremely important.
You currently play a Jean Baptiste Vuillaume violin. What kind of difference does it make, playing a really superb instrument?
It makes a huge difference. I’m extremely lucky to play on this instrument that’s been loaned to me generously through Beare’s International Violin Society. I’ve been playing on this instrument for coming up to two years and I continuously find new things. I’m very excited to be playing it.
Do you see your future as a soloist, or perhaps creating your own ensemble at some point?
As a violinist, I’m most interested in doing chamber music and solo playing, and I would love to have a career in which I can do this.
What do you want people to walk away with after they listen to Carnival?
It’s a piece of immense joy and imagination, and we hope that people feel very excited when they listen to it — because that’s the nature of the music — but also, the poems as well are very beautiful, and we hope that they feel moved by the story, and by the music. We hope that children are inspired to learn instruments.
Do you have any other family projects in the works?
Coming up in December Isata, Sheku and I are doing some concerts of piano trio [music] and also some piano quintet chamber music with some friends as well. That would be the immediate thing that we’re looking forward to.
The Kanneh-Mason siblings first album, Carnival of The Animals is not now on Decca Records, and available on CD and streaming platforms worldwide.
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