'Cello Bae' Sheku Kanneh-Mason Wins Worldwide Fans After Royal Wedding

May 21, 2018
Originally published on May 27, 2018 1:03 am

The British-born, 19-year-old prodigy Sheku Kanneh-Mason was a standout at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle this weekend. Kanneh-Mason performed three pieces during the ceremony, as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex signed the register (out of view of guests and cameras) just after their exchanging of vows.

Kanneh-Mason performed Maria Theresia von Paradis' Sicilienne, Gabriel Fauré's Après un rêve and Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria." But, where "Ave Maria" is a well-known classical standard, the selection of von Paradis' Sicilienne is considered a "deep cut" from a female contemporary and acquaintance of another genius — Mozart.

The performance of Kanneh-Mason, who was the first black musician to win BBC's Young Musician of the Year Award in 2016, served as one of the many non-traditional moments on the wedding's musical lineup. During the ceremony, The Kingdom Choir performed Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" and, as it ended, a rendition of "Amen/This Little Light of Mine" by Etta James.

"The atmosphere was amazing and I'm proud to have played a small part in the celebrations," Mason tweeted out on May 20, a day after the career milestone. "It's a day I will remember for the rest of my life."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, if you were one of the millions of viewers who tuned into the royal wedding last weekend, you may also have been one of the many who were impressed by a young cellist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN: That is 19-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason. He played three pieces during the interlude in which Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were signing the registry. Sheku Kanneh-Mason has been rising in the UK classical music world since 2016, when he won the BBC Young Musician competition. At a charity concert last year, he caught the ear of Prince Harry, and soon after, Megan Markle called to ask him to play at their wedding. And Sheku Kanneh-Mason is with us now from the BBC studios in London.

Sheku, thanks so much for joining us. Congratulations on everything.

SHEKU KANNEH-MASON: Thank you very much. Hello.

MARTIN: Has it sunk in? I mean, a week ago, you were performing in front of - I don't even want to say how many millions of people - no pressure at all. I mean, has it sunk in yet?

KANNEH-MASON: It was definitely an experience that was unlike anything I've ever done before, and so that was really thrilling and exciting for me.

MARTIN: Were you nervous?

KANNEH-MASON: I generally don't tend to get nervous before I perform, actually. Obviously, this was a performance very different to what I'm used to, but still, I would say I was more excited than nervous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KANNEH-MASON: And I was playing pieces of music that I really love to listen to and to play, and so I was really just focused on that. And I would say I'm very comfortable performing on the cello in front of audiences. I think if I had to speak in front of that many people, then I would be so nervous. But to play, I think I'm very comfortable.

MARTIN: You remind me of Mick Jagger. He was asked to perform at the White House, and someone asked him if he was excited, and he said, yeah, it's a gig you know...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...Something like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN: I want to mention that you have seven kids in your family, and all of you play classical music. And I right about that?

KANNEH-MASON: That's right. Yeah. I have five sisters and one brother who all play different instruments.

MARTIN: And in 2015, six of you entered "Britain's Got Talent." You all played together. You made it to the semifinals. And I cannot resist, but we're going to play a little bit of you in action. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT")

MARTIN: What you cannot see, unfortunately, because this is the radio, is just how happy you looked to be playing together. Is it really that way?

KANNEH-MASON: Yeah. I mean, and generally, when we play together - and we do get the chance in different combinations to play together a lot, which I always always enjoy - it means that we get a chance to to share our musical ideas and also to just explore music together, which I find one of the most exciting things.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT")

MARTIN: We mentioned in our introduction to you that you were the winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition. But I hope it's OK if we mentioned you were also the first black musician to win it. It's a competition that's been running since 1978. The classical musical world is certainly more diverse than it was in the past, but I did wonder - forgive me if - because it may not be important to you, but I do wonder whether that kind of distinction and - is important to you?

KANNEH-MASON: I mean, obviously, as - more so in the past, as you said, a lack of diversity in classical music. And I think one of the reasons for that is young people not having someone who looks like them to kind of be inspired by. I think, for me, I was always inspired by other members of my family, and I had musicians that I really looked up to. But I think if you are a young black child, for example, and you go to a classical music concert and see no one who looks like you, it's very difficult to see yourself doing that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEKU KANNEH-MASON'S "NOCTURNE")

KANNEH-MASON: And so I guess something that I'm hoping to change is to kind of give young people something that they can aspire to.

MARTIN: And who's your role model?

KANNEH-MASON: The musician who I look up to the most is the cellist Jacqueline du Pre, who I was obviously never able to watch live because she suddenly died before I was born. But listening to recordings and watching videos of her play is just so inspiring. And that was one of the reasons, when I was very young, I just wanted to practice the cello all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACQUELINE DU PRE'S "CONCERTO FOR CELLO AND ORCHESTRA IN E MINOR")

MARTIN: I've noticed that you also draw from a very eclectic mix of composers. And, earlier this year, you released an album with - that reflects this eclectic mix. You've got two pieces by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and then you've also got Bob Marley.

KANNEH-MASON: Yeah. I think I just love to listen to a range of music, and Shostakovich, as you say, is a composer that I have in mind for a long time. And also, next to that, I grew up listening to lots of Bob Marley's music as well just because my parents are also fans of his music, and so I can remember listening to it all the time in the house. And so I wanted to - my first album to record music that reflects everything that has inspired me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEKU KANNEH-MASON'S "NO WOMAN, NO CRY")

MARTIN: Sheku Kanneh-Mason. His album "Inspiration" is out now. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KANNEH-MASON: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEKU KANNEH-MASON'S "JACQUELINE'S TEARS," SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.