There are a number of classical music families. The Bach family, the Strauss family. The Romeros have been called the “Royal Family of the Guitar.” There are ensembles like the Ahn Trio or the 5 Browns who are siblings that have all become classical musicians. But pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, who sang melodies as a small child, improvised on the piano by age 7 and had a real passion for music from the beginning of her life, led the way for her 6 younger siblings to create a truly unique classical music family.
She’s begun her career with a quiet grace and to me, seems to have a welcoming demeanor that invites everyone to find the joy in music that all the Kanneh-Masons do. She could certainly brag if she wanted to. She’s performed many times on radio and TV, won many scholarships and recital prizes. She was awarded the Elton John Scholarship for her undergraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music and in 2013, even performed with Elton John in Los Angeles. Her debut album featured other women in classical music like Holly Mathieson and Mirga Graziyte-Tyla, and celebrated composer Clara Schumann. BBC Music Magazine said “…Kanneh-Mason matches what we know of Clara’s own approach, which was to forget ego and put everything at the service of the music…”
Isata’s parents both grew up in 1970s U.K. with families who loved and valued music. When Stuart and Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason’s first child was born, they’ve said it just felt natural to introduce her to the recorder or to buy a piano for the home. But they’ve also said they felt Isata needed music, that she was doing well at school, her mind going too fast and that she “emotionally” needed music. As parents it was also part of a well-rounded education for the whole family; of providing opportunities and giving their children a way to express themselves. Isata’s mother said in an interview “We never at any point thought ‘they are going to become musicians,’ we thought ‘they are playing music, and isn’t that wonderful’.” More than that, however, Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, who’s written a book about raising her musical family, has said that they encouraged their children in classical music and provided them opportunities in classical because they wanted their children to know that it wasn’t forbidden territory culturally. They had gotten the message from outside the family that classical music might not be something for black children. Stuart Kanneh-Mason said “If you believe that children can do anything, which I believe and Kadi believes, then why let things get in your way?”
Even a pandemic hasn’t gotten in Isata’s way. When the first lockdown started, Isata did have a short period of time when she thought about what she would have been doing, but then realized that created a bleak kind of outlook and instead decided to proceed through 2020 asking herself “what would I want to look back on in the future and be glad I did?” During lockdown, the family found inspiration in each other. They were aware that many people around the world were experiencing great loneliness and they weren’t, and were very grateful for each other. When Isata’s concert performing a Beethoven Concerto had to be cancelled, the family arranged a chamber music version of the piece and live-streamed it from their home. Sharing is something they do. The family has a regular tradition of traveling to Antigua where her Dad’s family is from to bring more classical music to the island. The family finds Antigua a great place for a holiday, but they really enjoy working with the children there and bringing them music.
Isata Kanneh-Mason has already done great things, on her own and with her musical family. I’m looking forward to even more, accomplished with an openness that welcomes all to the classical music family.