The Black Faces of Classical Music

I’ll be writing and sharing a series of articles discussing the presence of black composers and artists in the western classical music world. I’ll be drawing attention to black artists of today and discussing the influence of classical music on black people and vice versa. There will also be contributions  featured from students, teachers and eminent artists sharing their experiences as people of Afro-Caribbean heritage being successful in the industry.

The further I delved into classical music and immersed myself in it, the more I realised that there weren’t many artists who look like myself i.e. of African/Caribbean descent. So I decided to explore…

I’m sure many  people have heard of Scott Joplin but how about other black composer/performers such as Joseph Bologne (Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges),  Joseph Antonio Emidy and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?

The Black Faces of Classical Music Explained

Read about my black female inspiration for International Women’s Day 2017

Check out the links below to discover young black artists.
Introducing: Caroline Modiba
Introducing: Shannon Latoya Simon
Introducing: Lufuno Ndou

Here is Julian Joseph’s interpretation of Coleridge-Taylor’s “Deep River” No.10 from 24 Negro Melodies Op.59.

Introducing: Lufuno Ndou

www.lufunondou.com

 

The first time I became involved in classical music was in primary school. Only a few of the children were given the opportunity to play violin, a few others the recorder. I remember very little about playing the violin at this time, other than playing my violin17888646_10210120982955219_2003672998_n to family when we visited South Africa and seeing the number of children playing instruments fall as we got to end of primary school. I didn’t play the violin much when I started secondary school but having had the play it always kept me connected to classical music. As a singer, and also as a dancer and actor – as someone whose appearance may often be a factor to my performance – seeing people of colour in the industry is so important to me.17901755_10210120982995220_1578615655_o

The first time I saw Caroline Modiba, South African soprano, perform in Birmingham Conservatoire, I cried so much. It was a little bit embarrassing. But I saw her and I finally believed for the first time since beginning my studies in Birmingham Conservatoire that I could actually be good. I saw her and thought ‘I could be like that.’ Even just knowing that Maureen Braithwaite is teaching in the Conservatoire is incredibly encouraging.

When I took my ballet exam, I was told we had to have our hair in a bun. My natural hair was too short to tie up so I had my hair braided a few days before, just so I could put it in a bun for the exam. In all my short time of being on stage, that was the only situation where my being black was brought to attention. In classical music, especially as a sing
er, I haven’t yet been deeply affected in a negative way. I think the Conservatoire’s accepting atmosphere has helped. But I haven’t had any particularly positive moments that that were due to me being black either. What I mostly worry about is how I’ll be affected when I’m in the real world, trying to get roles and work.
Like when I see agencies are casting roles and the descriptions will say something like “fair skin, blonde hair, blue eyes.” Seeing open auditions for princess parties is another time when I have felt particularly black – there are only so many Disney princesses I could play! 17909527_10210120982915218_266639503_n
There are already so few shows and roles written for people of colour, and with that in mind I wonder if there is a limit to my success. On the other hand, I want to think that’ll I’ll be able to change how things are, or maybe I’ll be able to encourage young people to be more involved in classical music.

For more information go to her website and be sure to follow Lufuno’s instagram: @lufuyes

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Female Inspiration – International Women’s Day 2016

It’s International Women’s Day 2017. It is vital that globally we take a day to acknowledge and be aware of the wonderful women who are positively contributing to the improvement of our world (past, present and future). As a young, black female, I’m constantly reminded boy the media and society that I’m in the minority in most aspects of life. The following women have been sources of inspiration for me. It’s fantastic to see strong  black females especially in the arts and the music industry – long may it continue.

Ayanna Witter-Johnson

This cellist-singer-songwritter-composer has been an inspiration of mine every since I started learning the violin. I went on a mission to seek out black string players and I came across Ayanna. At the beginning 2017, I wanted to go to one of her gigs at Kings Place in London and I couldn’t make it and the tickets had sold out. I was so disappointed and that was that… Fast-forward two weeks and I actually got to meet her when on a mentoring day with AYM. She performed one of her songs, did a short Q&A and shared her music journey. I asked her what advice she’d give to young musicians like myself. She said “Be the best version of You”

Laura Mvula

Ever since I first discovered Laura Mvula (I think it was when she’d released her album Sing to the Moon) I’ve been in love with her song, her style and her vibe. Then, to my absolute delight, I found out that Birmingham Conservatoire was her alma mater and then I became obsessed. To know that someone so multi-talented (she plays/played the violin too) had come from my place of study gives such a boost. I’m an avid Instagram follower and I love her transparency. When I went to see Snarky Puppy on their tour in November 2015, Laura did an impromptu performance of her song Sing to the Moon with Snarky Puppy and it was mind-blowing. Not only is she a singer-songwriter but she’s now composing for the Royal Shakespeare company.

Pretty Yende

It was only recently that I’d become aware of  Pretty Yende. She’s a South African  soprano and she seems to be taking the world by storm after her breakthrough at the New York Metropolitan Opera . Like a typical young person, I scroll through Instagram  many times a day and I’d constantly see Pretty Yende pop up and I just had to find out more about her. A graduate of the young artist’s programme at La Scala Milan, she actually was first inspired to take up classical voice after hearing music on a British Airways advert!

Ingrid Silva

The short film above is what first made me aware of who Ingrid Silva was. I found the video so inspiring. In some ways her story is not unusual in the sense of many people start from humble beginnings and work hard to achieve their dreams. I genuinely connected with and was affected by the short film. It made me think about my own personal journey with my craft. However, again scrolling through Ingrid’s Instagram, seeing the amount of works she does just to give back to her community it’s really inspirational and confirms the importance of arts in society.

Millicent Stephenson

Saxophonist Millicent Stephenson has been another musician who has been on my radar since I was very young. I remember seeing her either on the tv or on a leaflet or poster, thinking “it’s the lady the with the gold sax”. A few years ago now, she won an award and that really symbolised progress and success for me. I believe she also runs workshops and conferences in Birmingham particularly for young women – I missed that last one but I’m definitely keeping my eyes and ears peeled for the next workshop. Also, Millicent Stephenson really synthesized many genres  that aren’t necessarily directly linked to the saxophone into her playing. She inspired me to do the same with the violin and integrate gospel songs, reggae etc. into my repertoire.

Tai Murray

Tai Murray was another internet based find for me. I think I was searchig some YouTube videos on the Ysayë solo violin sonatas and Tai Murray came up. Before her, I had never seen  or heard a black virtuoso. I had heard many great black violinists in other genres but never a black violinist with such dexterity in the classical industry. She is a huge inspiration because as a black violinist, she has helped to paved the way for people like me to follow.

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The Black Faces of Classical Music Explained

The Black Faces of Classical Music* is a movement seeking to champion and bring to light the many black individuals, ensembles, initiatives, charities and organisations that are affiliated with and represent progress for Black people within the domain of classical music. *Although the movement is called “The Black Faces of Classical Music”, and will focus primarily on music, it will include people of ethnic minorities and will also look at literature and arts. “The Black Faces of Classical Music” is a play on words: Black Faces = black people. This also represents the past forgotten figures, the presently up-and-coming figures and the achievements made by black people in the industry that have perhaps not been given as much recognition in the mainstream media.

The idea came to me  in the planning stages of my blog as I was thinking of the main themes to write about. One of the most obvious topics for me was the issue of the lack of diversity within classical music. In an industry dominated by caucasians and east asians, I think its important for me as a black person to see more people. Going to concerts and seeing the main orchestras, string quartets and other ensemble I found that it was quite  difficult to spot people who looked like me. In the rare occurrence that I did spot a face of a darker complexion, I would immediately smile jump for joy.

The Black Faces of Classical music is a movement that wants to see more talented black people and people of ethnic mintories excel in the classical genre addition to the genres pertaining to black culture i.e. Reggae, Rap, RnB, Soul etc. In the 21st century, where the world is so diverse, it should be a norm to see people of different complexions and cultural backgrounds in top orchestras and ensembles. In addition, the movement endeavours to create a dialogue and online platform to draw attention to and celebrate past, present and future talent in classical music that has its roots in African/Caribbean heritage.

If you’re interested in finding out more and reading some more articles follow the links below.

My Page – The Black Faces of Classical Music

Chineke! Foundation – Europe’s first professional orchestra comprised of Black and Minority musicians

The Black British Classical Foundation

Ritz Chamber Players – Chamber Music Ensemble comprised of African-American Musicians

Kinshasa Symphony – inhabitants of Kinshasa in DRC are not formally trained but have formed the country’s only symphony orchestra

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Introducing: Shannon-Latoyah Simon

I started playing the classical guitar at the age of 9 and naturally I became interested in the repertoire, which actually isn’t too vast or varied for the instrument. I think my involvement with classical music really grew when I started studying at the Northampton School for Girls (my secondary school), which was also a specialist music college. Classical music was played in nearly all of our classes to improve cognitive function and we were all encouraged to compose pieces, join the after school music ensembles and attend as many concerts and recitals as we could!

For me it’s very important to see more people of colour in the industry. Growing up I found it difficult because there were hardly any people of colour I could look up to as a role model. Due to this I have become involved with the BBCF (Black British Classical Foundation) an organisation that represents and provides opportunities to ethnic minorities within classical music. This year I was able to perform in the BBCF ‘Music inspired by Shakespeare’ concert at St Pauls Church in Covent Garden, which was an amazing experience. I love working with the BBCF because it inspires minority audiences and makes them see the possibilities for themselves and think, “I can do that too!”

I don’t feel as though being a black person in classical music has had any advantages or disadvantages as such. I’ve never been discriminated against of made to feel uncomfortable in any situation. I like to think that any opportunities or achievements I have gained have been down to hard work and determination.

 

 

For more information about Shannon visit www.shannonlsimon.com

Introducing: Caroline Modiba

“It doesn’t really matter what skin colour you are, if you’re talented enough then that’s where you should be”.

I got involved with classical music when I was still in school in South Africa. There were choral music school competitions and the finals took place in winter. And then the opera section was introduced and I thought “why not try my luck”. I made it to the finals and I made an impression to a few people who later introduced me to Sannie Streicher who was a voice coach. I took lessons with her while I was completing my high school diploma. After graduation I decided to study Bcom Management (business course) which had nothing to do with music but then music found me again. I was still taking singing lessons with Lorraine at this time and I heard about auditions for young artists training programme. I went to audition and got accepted in the 3 year training course with the Black Tie Ensemble which was an opera company with their own training programme. After completing the course I was accepted as a member and started earning money through my talent, which was great I thought.

There’s a lot of people of colour in the industry already, especially singers and for me it doesn’t really matter what skin colour you are, if you’re talented enough then that’s where you should be. It would be nice though if we could get more people of colour in the audience. I haven’t had any bad experiences as a black person in the industry and all the good experiences I’ve had I believe had to do with my talent and not my skin colour.

Caroline was one of the soloists in Verdi’s Messa Di Requiem performed by Birmingham Conservatoire. You can listen to her phenomenal voice in concert here and here.

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