The Chineke! Orchestra, Europe's first majority-Black and ethnically diverse orchestra makes its U.S. debut at New York City's Lincoln Center on March 20, 2023. The co-presentation between Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the New York Philharmonic and The Juilliard School kicks off the U.S. portion orchestra's first-ever North American tour.

Founded by Chi-chi Nwanoku, a trip to Detroit, Michigan, inspired the Nigerian-Irish bassist to champion change across the Atlantic and celebrated diversity in classical music, a field where  Black musicians can be a scarcity.

In honor of Women's History Month, Nwanoku shares why she started the foundation and her meet-cute with her instrument of choice: the double bass.

Chineke! Orchestra
Image: courtesy the Chineke! Foundation.

EBONY: What was your inspiration to start the Chineke! Orchestra?  

Chi-chi Nwanoku: I was invited to Detroit about 15 years ago to perform with the Sphinx Orchestra and that was such an inspiration to me. I’ll never forget stepping into the room full of African American and Latinx musicians, and that was something I’d never experienced before. I was amazed; I could never have imagined anything like it. The founders of Sphinx, Aaron and Afa Dworkin, were so encouraging and supportive. They were in England about nine years ago and before they left, they let me know how much they believed in me to make this happen, that they thought I could do something like this, to create something similar to Sphinx. I didn’t know that I could do such a thing, but I had other encouragement, too, so here we are!

What is the goal of the organization and where do your musicians hail from? 

It’s not about a lack of talent, there’s a lack of opportunity. Chineke! Foundation was formed to create professional opportunities at a high artistic level for talented Black and ethnically diverse orchestral musicians. Our members are mostly from Britain, but also from around Europe, with some from the U.S. as well for some of our tours and educational activities. Wherever we perform, we want to make sure that we work with young musicians in the community, so that they not only learn at a high level but can see themselves doing what we’re doing. It’s all about belonging, and feeling—for some of our players—like you’re the rule, instead of the exception, which is what so many of our own experiences have been. We launched our Chineke! Junior Orchestra—a youth orchestra for ages 11-22—on the same day that the Chineke! professional orchestra launched in September 2015. 

And they made TV history!

Yes, the junior group made the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent in 2020! Many have gone on to study at major conservatories and music schools throughout the U.K. in order to pursue classical music professionally.

Is it your goal to bring Black and diverse classical music to audiences?

It absolutely is! When I created Chineke!, every step of the way I was thinking: What IS Chineke? What will we be and how will we affect or make any sort of impact or wave in the industry? I already had a career and it occurred to me that I wasn’t interested in just walking onto the stage and playing with musicians of color when everything else wasn’t representative. There are famous Black composers like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a British bi-racial composer who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century whose music we have recorded. And Florence B. Price was an
African American composer from Arkansas who was the first female Black composer to have her music performed by a major U.S. orchestra. I had to address every single angle of the industry, which included the music we play and the people in management and then, hopefully, that would impact the people who attended. Unsurprisingly, there was a domino effect.

Being of Nigerian descent, do you bring any African music into your performances?

I’ve got a very strong association with the feel of the music, not just from my Nigerian roots, but also Southern Irish roots and I think it goes without question that all musicians pool their ancestral roots, and I definitely take a strong amount of influence from my West African background

How excited are you to make your U.S. debut?

We are thrilled to finally be making it to the U.S.! Our tour was scheduled for March 2020, so of course, didn’t happen then, and we’ve been waiting three years to see it through! Our tour programs are mostly music by composers of color: we've recorded the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a British biracial composer who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And there is Florence B. Price, an African American composer from Arkansas who was the first female Black composer to have her music performed by a major US orchestra.

Your music origin story is super cute! Can you share your first encounter with music and how you got to the double bass?

My first encounter with music that I remember was as a small child in Nigeria. I must have been around 2 years old, and I remember my father holding me. It was a starry night and I remember asking him what the shiny things in the sky were. He told me they were stars and proceeded to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I consider that my first music lesson. I took up the recorder at school when I was six, the piano when I was seven and was spotted by a sprint coach when I was eight. Sprinting became my absolute focus, even though music was a strong hobby. 

By my mid-teens, I was competing at a national level, and I had the fastest sprint start in Great Britain. I didn’t quite qualify for the Munich Olympics when I was 16, but I was preparing for Montreal in 1976. Unfortunately, in 1974, I dislocated my knee in a football match, which ended my sprinting career immediately. My music teacher and headmistress at school felt that I had enough musical talent that if I took up a very unpopular orchestral instrument I could have a career in music and that “unpopular instrument” was the double bass.

Does your athletic background help you in your music career?

The incredible training that I had in sprinting absolutely prepared me in so many ways for the skills I needed to learn the double bass precisely and quickly. All those skills—perseverance, execution, precision, interval training, stamina, focus, performance abd adrenaline—that I had to deal with as a sprinter came into practice and enabled me to be a performing musician.

See the Chineke! Orchestra at Lincoln Center on March 20 and on its national U.S. tour through March 25.