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Lancashire Times
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Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
12:00 AM 10th July 2024
arts
Interview

In Conversation with Braimah Kanneh-Mason

 
Braimah Kanneh-Mason
Braimah Kanneh-Mason
“As soon as I was old enough to understand what concerts and music making were all about, I wanted to be part of it and do it.” That’s what Braimah Kanneh-Mason tells me as we chat over zoom. He is in Antigua, where the talented violinist, that makes up one part of the Kanneh-Mason collective, is with his cellist brother Sheku.

Braimah is a cultural ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda, as well as a junior ambassador for the Music in Secondary Schools Trust.

He is a passionate advocate for equal opportunity and diversity in music education, and makes an annual trip to the Commonwealth country to act as a mentor.

It's widely agreed how important it is to encourage more young people to enjoy and participate in classical music, and Braimah thinks the problem is all about accessibility. “I think it is down to attitudes—not necessarily towards the music itself, more about the idea, feeling, and associations around the music.”

Naturally, this presents a dilemma, and Braimah draws on his experiences in Antigua to illustrate his point. “What we have noticed here is that as soon as people learn an instrument and play the music, they build up a relationship and context,” he says.

“With classical music, you are often dealing with music that has no words and can last up to an hour, so it requires a longer attention span.

"The attitude problem stems more from the perception that classical music is not for everyone; this just perpetuates that idea."

When I think back to my days at school, we had quite a few students learning instruments—in my case, the clarinet, piano, and organ—but it was costly for my parents. Braimah concurs, pointing out how expensive it can be to pay for instruments and lessons.

"The government covered these costs when my parents were young. They were able to learn without having to pay themselves, which opened up music to a wider range of people,” he tells me.

"I noticed recently that in both my primary and secondary schools, the use of instrumental music has dropped dramatically because schools no longer have the money to provide it."

We are catching up just before he returns to the UK for his concert on Saturday with guitarist Plínio Fernandes as part of the Harrogate Festival.

“It’s my first trip to Harrogate and the festival, and I’m really looking forward to meeting up with Plínio again,” he says, “as we are playing some exciting repertoire.

“There is solo Bach, Brazilian folk music with two preludes written by Villa-Lobos, and there’s Manuel de Falla, Paganini, and Piazzolla.”

It’s certainly virtuosic repertoire, and I guess that the audience will enjoy the intimacy of the Garden Room at Harrogate’s Crown Hotel, something that appeals to Braimah.

“I like the intimacy of chamber music, one player to a part, but that is not to say anything about orchestral concerts. A concerto is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of how much sound a soloist and orchestra can make. There is something exciting about having an orchestra behind you.”

Braimah started learning the piano first when he was six years old, moving on to the violin a year later. "I chose the violin simply because I liked it better and because my older sister, Isata, was learning it and the way I could change the note sound."

All his siblings are musicians, so music surrounded him as he grew up.

Teachers, friends, and parents have all influenced him, but he claims that Itzhak Perlman, the Israeli-American violinist, was a significant influence. “I listened to his violin playing a lot when I was younger.”

He recalls attending assemblies, listening to Djanjo Reinhardt, and enjoying CDs as his parents were transporting him to lessons in the car and that as a teenager, he enjoyed a lot of reggae, hip-hop, and pop.

I suggest that growing up with so many musicians in the house must have been chaotic; "it definitely was," he says, "and finding odd spaces around the house to practice was often a problem. I would practice wherever I could—in the bathroom, sometimes the kitchen, even the washroom. However, there’s something quite nice about a bedroom acoustic, and that’s where I was for the latter half of my teenage years.”

He won't have much time on his return from the Caribbean to prepare for Harrogate, and I wonder if touring can be difficult for someone in their early twenties.

"It can be, but there's something wonderful about performing the same repertoire on tour.

“If you play the same pieces over and over, it helps build a strong connection with how it feels to play the programme under pressure and on the stage. There is something quite freeing and exciting about it. I also enjoy travelling. It is such a luxury to be able to travel and play.”

Once he has finished in Harrogate, he must prepare for a recital with piano as part of the Fishguard Festival in Aberystwyth, as well as more chamber music at the end of the month.

The indefatigable Braimah Kanneh-Mason is unfazed; he simply enjoys performing.

Braimah Kanneh-Mason is with Plínio Fernandes on Saturday 13 July. Doors 7:00pm Concert 7:30pm End c.9:30pm
The Crown Hotel | Harrogate
For more information and to book tickets click here