With the creation of the Chineke! Orchestra, an orchestra primarily composed of Black people and People of Color, founder Chi-chi Nwanoku CBE wanted to change the perception of concertgoers, creating an avenue into classical music for musicians of color. The resulting youth orchestra, the Chineke! Junior Orchestra, currently consists of 200 musicians. Charles Campbell-Peek is one of them. He is 18 years old and has been playing the double bass since he was 7. Like many People of Color in classical music who play in orchestras, he has often been the only Person of Color in an orchestra. Our guest author Neneh Sowe spoke to him about how he came to join the Chineke! Junior Orchestra, and what it means to him to be a member of this orchestra.
Neneh Sowe (b. 1997) has been playing the violin since she was 10 – including in The String Archestra, founded in 2016. This string ensemble has a similar empowering mission as the Chineke! Junior Orchestra. Sowe studies musicology in Berlin and has been working as a freelance journalist since 2020, for the SWR and WDR radio stations, among others. She is part of the podcast “Offene Ohren – Musik & Diversität” (Open Ears – Music & Diversity) and has founded a Black online magazine called “BlaxMag”. For the newspaper taz, she wrote about her youth in a German village, describing her experiences with the music competition “Jugend musiziert”, among other issues.
Neneh Sowe: Since when do you play in the Chineke! Junior Orchestra?
Charles Campbell-Peek: I first got invited to the Chineke! Junior Orchestra in 2015 by the founder Chi-chi Nwanoku. A few years before I was awarded a London Music Fund scholarship, and Chi-chi presented me my award and gave me the scholarship. And we were supposed to do a duet together for the Mayor of London, but we could not because people were busy and it just could not work, so I did it with somebody else. And instead Chi-chi invited me to play in the launch of the whole Chineke! Foundation. The juniors had a concert first, and then afterwards it was the seniors. So I played in the very first junior concert in 2015, and I have been there since then.
People in the classical music industry do not expect to see an orchestra that looks like ours, for all the reasons why they think that we maybe should not be there. So the Chineke! Orchestra will naturally and inevitably change perceptions and create a pathway. The Chineke! Junior Orchestra are the pipeline.
– Chi-chi Nwanoku CBE, founder of Chineke! Orchestra & Chineke! Junior Orchestra
How did you feel when you played in an orchestra like that for the first time?
Well, it was a surprise. At that time I was ten or eleven and I did not know what to expect. My mom got all the emails and in other auditions where I had been before, I would be one of four people of color at most. Sometimes it was just me. So I showed up thinking it was just going to be like a normal orchestra, but everybody that I saw looked exactly like me. I would say there were like 50 or 60 people, and all of us were of color. It really was a privilege to be a part of and it was also really enriching to have that experience with people around me.
How did it happen that you ended up playing the double bass?
I used to play for a rugby club for 11 or 12 years, and one of the people in my rugby club also went to my school. After training we would go back to his house and he would have a piano. This is when I was five, and I used to like playing on his piano. Then I started having piano lessons and the year later I had violin lessons because my piano teacher‘s husband taught the violin. So I had my music lessons together. When they moved away I needed to look for somewhere else to have my violin and piano lessons. So we found Havering Music School, which is where I live and we applied to do lessons there. But in the summer before I joined, I came in from the garden because I was playing outside and my dad was watching a documentary, I believe it was on Elton John. And there was a guy in the band who was playing an upright bass, and then he spun it around. And so I asked if I could play that because all I wanted to do was spin it around. So I started having double bass lessons at Havering Music School from that September.
Do you play in other orchestras as well or did you play in other orchestras? And what were your experiences there compared to your experiences with the Chineke! Junior Orchestra?
At the time of joining, I played in the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain (NCO) and the National Youth String Orchestra of Great Britain, they are of really, really high standard. In the National Youth String Orchestra, I was the only person of color and in NCO there were maybe two or three other people that were of color. So when I went to Chineke! I did not know what to expect because I had hardly seen any people of colour in the top ranking youth orchestras in the country. expect and the standard was surprisingly high. And it still is now: Now I am the principal bassist in the National Youth Orchestra (NYO) of Great Britain, and there are quite a few of us of Chineke! in NYO at the moment. I think there is ten or eleven of us.
Is there a thing in playing in the Chineke! Junior Orchestra that is most important to you? What does does it mean to you?
I think the most important thing about not just me, but like any member in the orchestra, is the importance of diversity and inclusion. Because Chineke! was founded to provide opportunities for people from an ethnically diverse background. And I know at the time in the classical music world, there was no real shine on diversity and it was really overlooked. So being in an orchestra where it was not was a huge privilege because you immediately felt included. Often like, as I said, I would be the only person in an orchestra of colour, which I did not really find too uncomfortable. But I know sometimes it really can be for people. And Chineke! brought down the barriers that had previously excluded people of colour and made us all feel included.
“At the first Chineke! concert, for the the first time in all of our lives all we had to think about was the music. It was such an incredible feeling during our rehearsals, because nobody wanted to say goodbye at the end of the day.
Usually when each Chineke! Project is over, we each go back to being the odd one out and only Black & ethnically diverse person in other orchestras.
But now, at least Chineke! musicians know that they belong to the Chineke! Family, which gives us all a lot of confidence going forwards. It confirms and reasserts us into the classical music industry where we also belong.”
– Chi-chi Nwanoku
Do you plan on joining the Chineke! Orchestra?
I guess that is the goal: to be a full member when I am older. But for the last nearly two years, I have been playing with them anyway. And I have done a majority of the projects in the last two years. I did the Proms in the summer and I am going on tour with them this summer as well. I think the goal in terms of Chineke! is to be in the Junior Orchestra as long as possible, because I have been there since day one, but also continue to play with the seniors as well.
You are going to play Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Othello Suite op. 79. Some time ago I was researching for an article and I could barely find information in German about him as a composer or other black composers.
I know certainly in the major London orchestras and the major orchestras from the UK, in the last few years Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and music of composers with an ethnic background have been performed a lot more. There are the Florence B Price symphonies and the piano concertos which have been performed like a record number of times in the last couple of years, same as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. And I think that movement should move throughout Europe. So whilst we are in Germany, it is the aim to open the doors for people of color around Europe and not just in the UK.
Did you get curious?
Read more about their programme here.