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Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Our home was rich with music

Sibling Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason grew up in a house full of music. They were inspired by Bob Marley, Jacqueline du Pré and Franz Schubert.

With seven classical prodigies aged from 11 to 25, the Kanneh-Masons might just be the UK’s most musical family. When they were on Britain’s Got Talent in 2015, Simon Cowell went one further, saying: “I think you could be the most talented family in the world.”

Since then, 22-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has become the first black musician to win the BBC Young Musician competition. He followed up by playing to a global audience of billions when he performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Meanwhile, his big sister, pianist Isata, 25, graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London – having had her fees paid by her fan Elton John – and went straight to top of the UK classical charts with her debut album.

“I think when you grow up surrounded by music, you understand it. Our house was full of so much richness in that sense,” Isata tells The Big Issue, as she sits next to her brother on a sofa in their record label’s office. “We grew up with music always there. I think it really does shape you. We feel everyone should have that – whether or not you want to grow up to be a musician, you should have music in the household.”

Smiling at his sister, Sheku agrees that music is vital. “The deeper connections you have with a piece of music, they can make you more empathetic,” he adds. “I’ve found that music can open me up in that way. Listening, in general, is a skill that a lot of people need.”

Sheku and Isata’s first album as a duo, Muse, is set to be released next month. But first, the siblings joined us to reveal the music that made them.

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Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Photo by James Hole
Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Photo by James Hole

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason: The Music That Made Me

Imitating Jacqueline du Pré

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: The first [important musical moment] for me would be watching [cellist] Jacqueline du Pré’s Elgar performance, with Daniel Barenboim conducting. I was in love with that video and her playing. I remember when I started playing the cello, I would try to imitate her movements… of course, not making the same sounds. But I was moved by how directly and honestly she played. I still am.

Relaxing with Rachmaninov

Isata Kanneh-Mason: One of my earliest musical moments is listening to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. There was a recording of [Russian pianist Vladimir] Ashkenazy playing it, which our parents always had around the house when I was very small. My sister [violinist Konya] was three, and I was about eight. I was already playing the piano at that point. We both would go into the room where the CD player was and lie there, and she would fall asleep. We did that quite often. Because I was so young, I don’t know why that piece grabbed me. I just know that I loved it.

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Meaning and motivation from Bob Marley

Sheku: The last record I bought was probably either Bob Marley or NWA. I’ve listened to Bob Marley’s music a lot – probably more than any other artist. He had such a unique voice. As soon as you hear it, you know it’s him. There’s a lot of meaning and motivation behind his performance. He seemed like such a generous and warm and loving soul. It’s something that speaks very loudly even today. I don’t directly imitate a reggae singer or a soul singer, but the way they use their voice expressively can definitely feed into the way I play.

Getting close to the action with Guy Johnston

Sheku: In Nottingham, where we grew up, we had a great concert hall. Many, many wonderful musicians would come. We used to get tickets, as a child it was really cheap and we used to be right by the stage. I remember watching [English cellist] Guy Johnston. I was sitting almost underneath his spike. It was an amazing way to watch it. I was very moved and transfixed by his playing and being so close to the cello.

A Schubert prophecy

Isata: When we were very young, I just loved the video of Itzhak Perlman, Jacqueline du Pré and Pinchas Zukerman all playing the Trout Quintet by Schubert. I remember saying to my dad, “This is my favourite piece.” He said, “I’m going to play this video back to you when you’re 18 and trying to be cool at university.” I said, “I’ll be at music college, so I won’t mind.” It’s such a pretentious thing for an eight-year-old to say. That’s what’s funny – it was just one of those annoying eight year-old statements, but then it actually came true.

Muse, first album as a duo by Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason is out on 5 November.

@laurakaykelly

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