Book Reviews: House of Music - Raising the Kanneh-Masons

Clare Stevens
Monday, February 1, 2021

Clare Stevens reviews House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons by Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, published by Oneworld.


If you've ever seen or heard cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason or any of his siblings perform and wondered how one couple living in a suburban street in Nottingham managed to nurture seven extraordinary musicians, this book should provide the answer to most of your questions.

The prelude is an account of Sheku's winning appearance in the final of the BBC Young Musician competition in May 2016, described from his mother Kadiatu's perspective in the slightly clichéd style of any celebrity biography. Read on, however, and it immediately becomes clear that this is as much Kadiatu's own story as a book about her children's musical training.

An English graduate who lectured at Birmingham University until the demands of family life eventually made it impossible (her husband Stuart's job in the airline industry involved a lot of travel and long commutes), Kadiatu is a fluent, passionate writer who tells a compelling tale.

She explains how her Welsh mother, studying at an all-female college in Hereford to be a primary school teacher, met her father who had come from Sierra Leone to learn to teach carpentry at an all-male college in Birmingham. So Kadiatu's heritage included both the freedom and happy self-expression of community music-making in Africa and her mother's experience of formal piano lessons and Baptist hymn-singing. She herself was born in Sierra Leone but her father's sudden death meant the family had to return to the UK to live first with her maternal grandparents in Essex and then in a council house in South Wales. Kadiatu learned to play her mother's old piano but felt ‘there were hidden secrets in the music that I couldn't access because I needed to know how to play them in the right way’.

At Southampton University she met Stuart, whose parents had come from Antigua to London where his father, although a brilliant mathematician, worked as a bus conductor. But the Masons adored classical music, which they explored by means of LP subscription schemes, and ensured that Stuart and his sister learned to play the piano and an orchestral instrument and took advantage of every opportunity offered by the Inner London Education Authority's ensembles: ‘This was music accessible to everyone as part of state education, and Stuart and Rhonda's parents wanted them to value it’.

However, when Stuart was offered a free place on the specialist music course at Pimlico School, he refused to take it, fearing that although it was a state day school, he would have to give up playing cricket and marbles on the street with his friends: ‘There was no road map and there were no role models, and none of the family understood what specialist music school would mean for Stuart.’

The struggle to achieve a balance between the intensive tuition and the many hours of practice needed to become a professional musician, let alone a soloist, and some sort of normal life runs through Kadiatu's account. She and Stuart decided to send the children to state schools in Nottingham, where they received a lot of support and were allowed to spend more and more of their time on music.

At the age of ten, Isata, the eldest, won a scholarship to the Junior Royal Academy of Music and the family's extraordinary Saturday routine began: waking in the small hours so that one parent and the children who had reached that stage could catch the first train to London, spend the day at the conservatoire and return mid-evening. Week-night routines would sometimes include driving one child across the county for lessons with a particularly good teacher, in addition to managing the gruelling treadmill of school runs, meals, laundry, homework and practising.

We learn how much thought went into choosing the appropriate instrument for each child and how each has different learning styles; and about the importance of family music-making that has helped them all to hone their chamber music-making skills and taken them to the semi-finals of Britain's Got Talent. And, of course, we follow Sheku through the Young Musician experience and discover how he dealt with the resulting pressure of concert engagements and increasing fame, especially after his performance at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Having faced both racism and misogyny as she fought to establish her own academic career, Kadiatu is understandably proud to see her children emerging as ambassadors for Black musicians in a performing world that is predominantly white, and for classical music in a culture that increasingly seems to see it as irrelevant.

If I have a criticism of this absorbing book it is that Kadiatu has revealed more about her children's personal lives and the individual musical challenges that they have faced than seems fair, especially to the younger ones. But it should be read by every music teacher and every parent who suspects they have a gifted child and needs to understand the huge commitment that will be involved in supporting their musical talent.