At 22, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has already accomplished more than most.
In 2016 he was the winner of the BBC Young Musician Award, the first black musician to win since the award was launched in 1978.
In 2018 he played at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to a televised audience of billions. He is the first cellist in history to reach the top 10 of the UK album charts and has performed at some of the world’s most prestigious music venues, including Wigmore Hall in London, Carnegie Hall in New York and Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris.
And next up is Canberra, where Sheku will perform at the Canberra Theatre Centre alongside his seven siblings, all of whom are talented instrumentalists. There is Isata (25), Braimah (24), Sheku (22), Konya (21), Jeneba (19), Aminata (16) and Mariatu (12), all of whom play either piano, violin, or cello, or some combination of those instruments.
It will come as no surprise to learn that the family’s upbringing centred around music.
The sibling’s parents Stuart and Kadiatu, both musical but not musicians themselves, enrolled their children in state-run education in their hometown of Nottingham at a school that embedded music within its curriculum.
In 2015, the six eldest siblings performed a medley of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Clean Bandit on Britain’s Got Talent. They reached the semi-finals.
The ease with which they played with one another, the intimacy of music flowing as though a conversation, elicited high praise from notoriously dour judge Simon Cowell who commented that the Kanneh-Masons were “probably the most talented family in the world”.
On raising her musical family, Kadiatu has said, “I think all children actually have genius and it’s all about championing that. Genius is something you really, really want to do, which is probably more important than something called talent. It’s loving something, wanting to do it, having the thirst to do it, and then channelling that hard work. It’s not something you are born with because if you do nothing about it, it goes nowhere.”
The natural genius within each of the Kanneh-Masons is clearly going somewhere.
In their first Australian tour, Sheku will be joined first by his sister Isata, one of Britain’s leading young pianists, in a performance of sonatas for cello and piano. In the second half of the program, all seven siblings will take the stage to bring to life the music of composers such as Schubert, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and the Gershwins.
Eldest sibling Isata, who received the 2021 Leonard Bernstein Award, a 2020 Opus Klassik award for best young artist and who has released her own solo recordings, said she prefers to play with her family.
“It’s like having a support network on stage. We have a lot of fun together. Musically, we all know each other’s playing so well so there is a lot of freedom and spontaneity while we are playing.”
Asked what it is like to perform classical music, music that is steeped in history and audience expectations, Isata observed that “human emotion hasn’t changed that much”.
“Even though the world may have changed, people’s life experiences haven’t changed that much in terms of what they feel. The music is still relatable and as soon as you realise that it becomes very easy to bring yourself to the music.”
The concept of bringing your present self to music applies to an audience as well. Classical music doesn’t just belong at the School of Music, it isn’t just for a particular class or age group.
As Isata said, “we all have a love of music and music is for everyone”.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason & The Kanneh-Mason Family will appear at the Canberra Theatre Centre on Sunday, 14 August. Tickets from $79. Book here.