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Founder of orchestra says CBE award ‘rubber stamps' diversity work

Chi-chi Nwanoku after she was made a CBE (Victoria Jones/PA)
Ellie Ng, PA

The founder of the first professional orchestra in Europe to be made up of a majority of black and minority ethnic musicians said being made a CBE “rubber stamps” the work she is doing to diversify classical music.

Double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku founded the Chineke! Foundation to celebrate inclusion and diversity in the musical genre.

She was made a CBE at Buckingham Palace on Friday for services to music and diversity.

Ms Nwanoku told the PA news agency: “This sort of occasion rubber stamps the knowledge that I can carry on doing the work that I'm doing which is opening that door and creating a platform of opportunity in the classical music world to those otherwise previously unseen.”

The Chineke! Orchestra is now a resident orchestra at the Southbank Centre and is about to embark on its first tour of North America.

It has also just been made a National Portfolio Organisation for the first time.

Ms Nwanoku told PA she hopes recent recognition of her orchestra sends a “big message” to the arts industry that “it is not a day too soon to think about how inclusive we can all be”.

She wants to push to diversify not only musicians on stage, but composers and the type of music played as well.

The double bassist said she experienced a “trigger point” to create the orchestra in September 2014.

She told PA that then Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey invited her to a pre-concert reception ahead of a performance by the Congo's Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra after they bumped into each other on their way to the concert.

She said she found out at the reception that there was a documentary being filmed about the orchestra but there “was not a single black person in the room” at that time.

“This was the lightbulb moment,” she said.

And she remembered thinking: “This is the 21st century, it shouldn't be a novelty that there is more than one black face playing Beethoven.”

Ms Nwanoku told PA she phoned every music establishment in the country the next day telling them she wanted to build an orchestra that celebrates inclusion and diversity.

She added: “The more I looked, the more I found. That well of talent runs deep.”