In 2018 when young and talented cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason won everyone over with his stunning performance at the royal wedding ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, it turned out that he was not the only talented classical music genius in his family.
Sheku, who was the first Black winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2016, has six other classically-trained siblings, all of whom play either the piano, violin or cello to a remarkably high standard. Isata, the eldest and 24, plays the piano; Braimah, 22, plays the violin while 19-year-old Konya and Aminata, 14, play both piano and violin. Jeneba, 17, and 10-year-old Mariatu, who is the youngest, play both cello and piano.
The seven brothers and sisters are recipients of several awards and have appeared in various television shows and ceremonies including Bafta awards in 2018 and the 2019 Royal Variety Show in the UK, where they wowed the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the audience.
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Classical music is considered not easily accessible to many children, so the Kanneh-Mason siblings believe they have been lucky. “We went to two amazing state schools that really supported music and encouraged us to continue music outside of school as well,” sister Jeneba 18, who plays piano and cello, told BBC.
Indeed, all the siblings attend or have attended London’s Royal Academy of Music and its primary and junior academies, according to their website. But they also attribute their music success to their parents. The Kanneh-Masons grew up in Nottingham, England to Sierra Leone-born mother Kadiatu Kanneh, a former university lecturer, and father Stuart Mason, whose family comes from Antigua, and works for Belmond, a luxury hotel chain.
Both parents played instruments to a high standard in their childhood but never pursued music professionally. The two initially just wanted their children to enjoy music and play an instrument, paying no heed to the lack of Black people in classical music. Little did they know that all seven would come out with extraordinary talents in music.
Everything started off with Isata, their eldest child, who they wanted to play the piano. So by eight, she was already in the Junior Department of the Royal Academy of Music. “Braimah and Sheku started saying they wanted to go too and, from then on, my wife and I would regularly wake up early on a Sunday morning and hear them practising in the bathroom,” Stuart told FT.
Isata, who is currently signed to Decca, debuted at the top of the UK Official Classical Artist Chart with her album of Clara Schumann’s music, Romance. She has performed with Elton John in Los Angeles in 2013 and has also performed on some TV shows. Her siblings believe she has had a tremendous impact on their music career. Konya, the fourth eldest sibling, studies at The Royal Academy of Music. She has performed at Marlborough House for Their Royal Highnesses Prince Charles and The Duchess of Cornwall in 2017, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at The Baftas in 2018.
Her younger sister, Jeneba, has Grade 8 Distinction on the cello and plays in The Royal Academy of Music’s Sinfonia Orchestra and in Chineke! Junior Orchestra, the leading UK ensemble made up of BME musicians. Braimah is also part of the Chineke! Orchestra, and plays violin with the band Clean Bandit. He has even appeared with the band on The X Factor and Top of the Pops.
Aminata, who has performed with her siblings to royalty, has Grade 8 Distinction on the violin and Grade 7 Distinction on the piano. She is with the Primary Academy at The Royal Academy of Music. The youngest sibling, Mariatu, also performed with her siblings for Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall in March 2017. The young music genius has Grade 4 Distinction on the cello.
The most famous, Sheku, who has a local bus named after him, has recorded albums for the Decca label and toured the world. He and Isata performed together as a duo at the 2020 BBC Proms. Sheku’s celebrity status, of course, has affected the family as more and more people are now interested in what they do, particularly their concerts.
But the 21-year-old cellist said he owes his success to his older siblings who are equally doing great in a music style that is so White. His younger siblings are also reigning supreme in their music career, appearing in concerts either individually or together across the country.