One royal wedding, seven young musical stars – and VERY driven mother

One royal wedding, seven young musical stars and a VERY driven mother: A frank memoir reveals the eye-watering commitment required to raise outstanding classical musicians

  • Dr Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason reveals how she raised a family of classical musicians
  • The memoir, House of music, details trials of her disciplined parenting tactics
  • A tale which results in son Sheku performing cello at Prince Harry’s wedding

FAMILY  

House of music

by Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason (Oneworld £18.00, 320 pp) 

When Dr Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason opens the bathroom door at her family home in Nottingham, she smiles at the pockmarked linoleum which gives the impression ‘a lively woodpecker has been at work’.

The line of dents leads to the toilet seat where her third child, Sheku, once sought space away from his six siblings to ‘sit, skewer his cello into the floor and play for hours, loving the concert-hall sound that would echo from the bathroom walls’.

Back then, Sheku’s mother could have no idea her son would one day enchant the estimated 1.9 billion viewers who tuned in to watch the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018.

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason perfoms at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle

And viewers had no idea that Sheku’s siblings were all gifted and hard-working musicians, too. But his mum’s frank memoir reveals the eye-watering level of practical, emotional, intellectual and financial commitment required to raise seven outstanding classical musicians.

Reading Kadiatu’s story, it quickly becomes apparent that the energy she puts into parenting has been driven by unenviable feelings of loss, anxiety, fear and self-doubt.

She was born in Sierra Leone, the second of four children. Her Welsh mother, Megan, met her father in Birmingham where they were both at teacher training school.

Aged 22, her mother travelled to Sierra Leone to marry her 32-year-old, laughing, dancing, suitor. Kadiatu’s first four years in Sierra Leone were full of colour, flavour and happiness.

The Kanneh-Mason Sextet Pictured: Aminata Kanneh-Mason (pictured centre) with family (left to right) Jeneba, Konyka, Braimah, Sheku, in 2015

That changed when her father died of an undiagnosed heart condition — leaving her feeling forever ‘hollow’.

House of music by Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason (Oneworld £18.00, 320 pp)

Brokenhearted Megan brought her four children (all under seven) back to the UK in the freezing November of 1970. Kadiatu recalls that ‘Britain in the 1970s was a cruel place to be black and mixed race . . . children laughed and shouted at us in the street.’

At university in Southampton Kadiatu met her future husband, Stuart. The son of Antiguan immigrants, he grew up in a house ‘saturated with classical music’.

Although his teachers first thought Stuart had learning difficulties, they later realised he was the brightest boy in the class and he was offered a musical scholarship, which he declined. He completed a masters in maths and went to work for British Airways. Kadiatu finished a PhD in English and began lecturing at Sussex University.

The couple’s first daughter, Isata, was at nursery when teachers told them she was a genius. But the child’s ‘uncanny intelligence made her hyper aware of an emotional world around her she could neither control nor stabilise.’

From the age of 18 months, her teddies had to be placed in a precise order and she developed an obsessive interest in an electronic scrabble game. There were terrifying screaming fits and periods when she claimed to see ‘an apparition called Tom’. 

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason who played at the Royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle

Picture Shows: Mariatu, Stuart, Kadie, Aminata, Sheku, Isata, Braimah, Konya, Jeneba (left to right)

When Isata was four, her parents decided music would soothe her emotions and stretch her intellectually. She began with the recorder, then took up the piano aged six, learning how to play it with both hands in weeks.

Her younger siblings were enchanted and all took to the piano like ducks to water, memorising their pieces within hours.

With Stuart away working, Kadiatu became a full-time mother, battling through debilitating morning sickness and five miscarriages, feeling the triumph each time her body held on to a baby.

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was the first first black musician to win the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition since its launch in 1978

On weekdays she rose at 5.40am. The children were expected to return from school, do their homework, then practise their music. Screen time was not allowed.

On Saturdays, Kadiatu rose at a ‘brutal’ 4,30am to prepare them for their lessons at the Royal College of Music. She drove them to karate, football, cricket, swimming, ballet and gymnastics.

There were little moments of rebellion. On Mondays, Kadiatu spent 90 minutes driving Aminata to her violin lessons and on those evenings the other kids would sneakily watch DVDs, keeping an eye out for her car’s headlights swinging onto the drive.

Yet the children were soon rising unbidden at 5am to practise before school. Isata (who won the Elton John scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music) would go on to accompany Sheku on piano in many major performances. Braimah joined classical-pop group Clean Bandit. Konya (now 19) and Aminata (14) both play violin and piano while Jeneba (17) and Mariatu (ten) play cello and piano.

Kadiatu says it’s not a smooth emotional ride. Her kids are often sobbing before and after performances. The siblings are ‘stricter with each other than I am, if they feel one of them is being lazy’. The girls sometimes meet ‘just to cry’.

The family acknowledge that the media attention they received in the wake of the royal wedding was difficult to manage. ‘The children’s lives had been aimed at performance,’ writes Kadiatu. ‘but now the unperformed, the unselfconscious parts of their lives were thrust up on stage.’

The pressures of the lockdown summer must have seen a few more holes pressed into that old bathroom lino. I feel Kadiatu is a lot like that lino. A woman who bears the marks of great love and great self-sacrifice. An extraordinary woman who has shown her extraordinary children how to sing out to the world, and is only now finding the time to sing out about the experience herself.

Her beautiful, wise writing is its own music.

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