Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason

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House of Music

Raising the Kanneh-Masons

Seven brothers and sisters. All of them classically trained musicians. One was Young Musician of the Year and performed for the royal family. The eldest has released her first album, showcasing the works of Clara Schumann. These siblings don’t come from the rarefied environment of elite music schools, but from a state comprehensive in Nottingham. How did they do it?

Their mother, Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, opens up about what it takes to raise a musical family in a Britain divided by class and race. What comes out is a beautiful and heartrending memoir of the power of determination, camaraderie and a lot of hard work. The Kanneh-Masons are a remarkable family. But what truly sparkles in this eloquent memoir is the joyous affirmation that children are a gift and we must do all we can to nurture them.

When Mum defied everyone to sail on a ship to Sierra Leone to marry my Dad, her father was convinced that she would die of fever in the tropics. She was twenty-two, defiant and in love. Grandpa was heartbroken and didn’t want her to go. He could only see death like a shadow over the future. Mum had found out this young African was actually ten years older than her – he’d just looked young and unknowing. He knew, with utter conviction, what he wanted. And it was her. He was one of forty-five children from twenty-one wives, the eldest son of the favoured wife, and it was shocking to marry a foreign White woman. But they were young and determined and brave.

My mother sailed for nine days on the Elder Dempster Line from Liverpool docks, a line that used to voyage regularly to West Africa. The ship was full of African students returning after years away studying in the UK. There were also some expatriate British diplomats from the High Commission and one who ran the Paramount Hotel in Freetown. The ship stopped at La Palma, Canary Islands, and then Sierra Leone, before continuing to Ghana and Nigeria. The students were excited to be going home after years away, having been unable to afford return passage any sooner. A one-way ticket cost several months’ salary for a primary school teacher. Mum was going to see Dad for the first time after a year apart. (He had gone to secure a job and a home for them both, communicating only by letters which took weeks to arrive.)

Extracts taken from: House of Music by Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason Publisher: Oneworld Publications

Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, head of the most musical family in Britain, talks to Caroline Sanderson about the emotional and financial costs of raising her family in a Britain divided by class and race. The memoir looks at how these seven siblings, educated at a state comprehensive school in Nottingham, have won their places on the world’s classical music stage. A mother’s portrait of a remarkable family, this is a story of determination, camaraderie and incredible sacrifice. this even is part of The Bath Festival. For more details, go to: www.bathfestivals.org.uk/the-bath-festival

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In an extract from her book 'House of Music', Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, tells us how it all began: 

I was born in Magburaka, Sierra Leone, the second child of four. Although I was born in Temne country, my father was Mende, and when I was two years old we moved to Bo, where most people spoke Mende. My Welsh mother had met my father in Birmingham while she was at an all-female teaching college in Hereford and he at an all-male teaching college in Birmingham, studying to teach carpentry. Mum’s subject was English and she wanted to be a primary school teacher. A dance was arranged between the two colleges and my Dad came on the bus from Birmingham to Hereford. Mum was nineteen and danced with my Dad, who had no shyness and loved to be laughing and dancing. No one would ask the stern-faced principal of my mother’s college to dance, so my Dad did and she was flustered with delight. He had the gift of joining people together, of starting a party.

When he walked Mum to the bus that night, he had already made up his mind and sent Mum a letter the next day, telling her he had fallen in love. She thought this young-faced boy was a dreamer, living in a world that didn’t exist and wasn’t possible, but he persisted. They used to walk together through the streets of Birmingham, vilified by many. Mum told me these stories as though describing a world that was separate and skewed but which she simply ignored. They both ignored it and I marvelled at the lack of inner pain and damage, as though they had blazed through it all in a bubble of their own. But that can’t have been true.

While on the ship, she spent time with a student who was returning to Ghana, full of joy at the thought of seeing his family again after so long apart. The day before the ship pulled into Freetown harbour, Mum went to get her hair done in the onboard hairdressers, agreeing to look after the student’s camera while he joined in the friendly diving competition at the pool. Each had to dive in and see who could stay down the longest. The one who held his or her breath under the water’s surface for the longest time was the winner. They all resurfaced one by one, but he never did – and would never see his home shore again.

The mixture of grief, excitement, wonder and love in my twenty-two-year-old mother’s head as the ship pulled into the astonishingly beautiful harbour in July 1963 is hard to imagine. The white sands and palm trees, the density of green vegetation and the red earth rising into the hills around the coast took her breath away. Dad appeared at the harbour with his brother, S.B., and a radical new haircut ready for their wedding. Mum spent time that evening on a deserted Freetown beach with her husband-to-be, watching with wonder how quickly the huge sun went down below the line of the shining sea. They were married the next day, surrounded by my father’s family, in a Freetown church, and climbed aboard a train for the interior that cut slowly through the dense forest upcountry and took them further into Sierra Leone. There were no phones and Mum was cut off from everything she knew.

After a long train journey through forests and villages, where women sold sweet-tasting fruit from the trees, she woke up the next morning in my father’s village, in a small house with a tin roof and a crowd of children peering through the window at the first White woman in the family. She found out she was pregnant three months later when a woman in Grima looked her in the face and told her the news. Some of the women asked if White women were able to breastfeed like they did.