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House of Music - Raising the Kanneh-Masons
by Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason
320 pp ONEWORLD PUBLICATIONS
I must admit that I am generally sceptical about books such as Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason’s House of Music, meaning a book about a person’s (or in this case a family’s) shot to fame for some worthy (or sometimes less worthy) reason. However, Ms Kanneh-Mason is no stranger to writing, having been published in 1998 with a study on race, nation, culture, pan-Africanism and black literatures, entitled African Identities and published by Routledge. Although I haven’t read it, I did have a look at the first few pages and it appeared to me, interesting, knowledgeable and eloquent. The book she has now written – House of Music, Raising the Kanneh-Masons – is a completely different affair. It is autobiographical, told from her personal perspective and, at times, almost feels like a memoir. It deals with Ms Kanneh-Mason’s own story and that of her family.
Since her third child, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, deservedly won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Award in 2016 at the tender age of seventeen, the family has been in the public eye. I have since the first moment admired Sheku’s immense artistry as a cellist. The cello is my favourite instrument and to hear someone so young express a wide variety of feelings, deep emotions and heart-rendering moments was nothing short of extraordinary. Winners of this prestigious award sometimes lose themselves after a couple of years in the stress of gigs, press and public interest. Unable to cope with it all, they are forgotten a year or so after winning. I remember thinking I hoped it wouldn’t happen to Sheku. If at seventeen he could demonstrate and communicate such maturity, such drama when he played, imagine what he’d be able to do in another five or six years. Luckily for all of us who love music, Sheku keeps going from strength to strength. I last saw and heard him at the BBC Proms in August 2019 when, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, he gave a heartbreakingly beautiful and exceptional rendition of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor – possibly one of the best I have ever witnessed.
Once Sheku became a celebrated musician, the public discovered there were another six talented musicians in his home and there was a hunger to find out more. House of Music banks on the people’s wish to learn and understand a group of remarkable children. The book tells theirs and their parents’ story, lovingly written by their mother Kadiatu.
It is in itself unusual when there is more than one super talented artist or musician in a family, to have seven is downright unique. As to be expected, it didn’t just happen by chance. Of course the raw talent was present but it had to be nurtured and developed, which involved a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Candidly Ms Kanneh-Mason tells us all. From her pregnancies to the birth and the growing up of her seven children, the financial difficulties, the struggle day to day to deal with the needs of seven very different kids, their ups and downs, her husband’s and her own struggles, as well as the moments of elation, drama and loss. To me personally, more than the story of bringing up and nurturing seven talented children, it was fascinating to read about Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason’s own remarkable earlier life and that of her mother, a Welsh woman who travelled alone to Sierra Leone at the age of 22 to marry the man she had fallen in love with. Ms Kanneh-Mason eloquently describes her childhood (until the age of 5) in Sierra Leone, the trauma of losing her father at that tender age and most of all the terrible culture shock when she arrived in the UK with her mother and three other siblings. England of the 1970s was a difficult place for a black or mixed race person to grow up. Ms Kanneh-Mason honestly writes about the racism she endured at school and from society around her. There are many sombre, sad episodes she details from her childhood’s experiences and how they marked her as a young adult, making her feel insecure and unworthy. For me it was important to learn about it, mostly because I could relate to it albeit in a different manner. I came to this country in the early 1990s, already as an adult woman but, being Portuguese and speaking English with a slight foreign accent, I didn’t experience racism (because I’m white), but deeply received and felt the animosity against anything and anyone foreign. It’s almost a phobia of sorts, not generic to the whole of the UK but sadly, still present among some people in this country and which arguably has led to Brexit.
Ms Kanneh-Mason writes from the heart and her own very personal perspective. As she puts it in the acknowledgements, House of Music is ‘…above all,…a book about love.’ She begins with a prologue, describing her son Sheku’s performance in the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 at the Barbican, seen from her point of view as his mother, sitting in the audience with her own family and the families of other participants, clearly narrating the anxiety, the doubts, the nerve-wracking moments and also the beauty of achievement as the crowning of hard work. After it, the narrative is structured into chapters – chronologically ordered – starting with Ms Kanneh-Mason’s mother’s story, then her own before getting married, her marriage, the seven children and how they all arrived to where they are now. Her style is eloquent, passionate, articulate and expressive. Her use of the written language is skilful and the expression of emotion flows easily and sounds sincere. I think many women will be able to identify with Ms Kanneh-Mason’s wishes, dreams, struggles and joys. Some of the things she describes are common to parenthood, independent from the colour of one’s skin. On the other hand, I must say that while I can easily relate to the importance of music in their lives, Ms Kanneh-Mason’s overwhelming desire for maternity and ever more children is to me as incomprehensible as it is admirable. That in itself makes her and her book noteworthy, the exceptional musical talent of her seven children turns it into a pleasing, engaging read.
As I mentioned, the book is exceptionally well written but it is also particularly well edited. I have to say that I was especially glad to see that Ms Kanneh-Mason gratefully acknowledges her outstanding editor, Sam Carter, at the end of the book. Too often celebrities forget to give credit where credit is due but she does not. As for the presentation, the book is available as Hardcover – beautifully designed and if you love paper books this is the one to buy – and as e-book, considerably less expensive than the paper edition.
The Kanneh-Masons are at present one of the most famous families in the UK and in musical circles around the world for good reason. House of Music tells their story, some chapters are more compelling than others and some moments are inspirational. To me, her husband Stuart’s unshakable belief in his children’s talent and that there are no limits to what you can achieve when you put your mind to it, is positively exhilarating.
House of Music is perhaps not a page-turner in the real sense of the word but it is definitely an honest, candid and fascinating account of England in the 1970s/80s and an interesting tale of an extremely talented family, all told with a refreshing if inevitably slightly one-sided voice. I enjoyed reading it and, if well-written autobiographical books are your thing, then you won’t go wrong with this one.