In the latest edition of Africa Avant Garde, CNN meets some of the continent’s most influential figures from the worlds of classical music, opera and ballet.
Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE is the founder and artistic & executive director of the Chineke! Foundation. Nwanoku created the orchestra in 2015 to address the lack of representation of Black, Asian and ethnically diverse classical musicians.
She spoke about her experiences as a classical musician: “99.9% of my career I was the only Black person in the orchestra. White was the norm. All orchestras were White. That was considered normal and the status quo, and I’d accepted it.”
She continued, dismissing the stereotypes Black musicians often face: “I very quickly learned not to believe the popular narrative, i.e. that A) Black people are not interested in classical music, B) Black people can’t play classical music, or C) those who do play aren’t any good. Not true.”
The NOK Orchestra, founded by classical musician Tunde Jegede, is a Nigerian performing group that combines Western and African classical music.
Jegede told CNN about the group’s formation: “What I felt was there needed to be a forum for the young players playing Western classical instruments to also be performing African composers and African music. So, you can’t only play Western classical music when you’re travelling out, you must also represent who you are and what you’re about culturally.”
The programme also met soprano Francesca Chiejina. She discussed representation in opera: “As a Nigerian and as a Black person, to be frank, there were few voices to kind of aspire to in classical music. The Royal Opera House took a big chance on me when I got onto the Jette Parker Program. And they took me on kind of as part of the family.”
Africa Avant Garde also explores ballet’s impact across the continent, meeting dancers from Nigeria and South Africa.
Young ballet dancer Anthony Madu explained his love for dance and the opposition he has faced, “I told myself that I want to be different. I want to be a ballet dancer. And when people see me, they’ll be like, what am I doing, that I’m not supposed to doing this in Nigeria, that it’s not meant for boys, it’s meant for girls. It made me feel discouraged, but I keep on working hard. I encourage myself.”
Finally, Ballet Black senior artist and choreographer Mthuthuzeli November told the programme about his blending of traditional ballet with African dance: “I love challenging what people think shouldn’t be the way it is. I love doing African dance and fusing it with the ballet. I don’t like the word fusion, but bringing those two worlds together, I really love that because it makes people very unsettled.
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