“An American voice came on the phone. ‘Hi, this is Meghan Markle. Want to play at my wedding?’”
The call from Kensington Palace was for the 19-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and it led to the moment on May 19 2018 when he would play at Harry and Meghan’s wedding. After he got the call, he teased his mother Kadiatu by telling her that he had responded “No thanks.”
This moment is described in Kadiatu’s new memoir, House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons, which has been described by Lady Antonia Fraser as “an amazing, compelling, moving and unforgettable story”. A Catholic mother of seven brilliant young musicians, Kadiatu tells a touching story, not just about music but about the life of a large family.
Sheku was already a rising star – in 2016 he had become the first ever black winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Award, the first of several major awards – but the wedding was the moment he became known around the world. “As a mother, I was so proud of him and I thought it was a wonderful thing to do. It was an incredible moment,” Kadiatu tells the Catholic Herald. But there was a broader point. “The power of that wedding was having something right at the centre of the British monarchy with this amazing Kingdom Choir, a black choir, a black preacher, a black musician centre stage. It was a message of hope”, she says, “there was an idea that things were going to get better, that the world was becoming more inclusive.”
Inclusivity is an important message throughout Kadiatu’s book. Perhaps that’s because her own extended family is so large. She was born in Sierra Leone, where her grandfather had 45 children with 21 wives – yes, you read that correctly. As for religion, “In Sierra Leone, no one cares what religion you are, it’s all very fluid”. Things changed after she married her now-husband Stuart. “We were attracted to Catholicism because we thought it was a great place to bring up a family. We converted when we had four children, and we were received into the Church in Nottingham.” Today they have seven kids: Isata, 24; Braimah, 22; Sheku, 21; Konya, 20; Jeneba, 18; Aminata, 14 and Mariatu, 11.
The family’s Catholicism has, Kadiatu says, been at the heart of its most noticeable feature: the remarkable musical talent which runs through the Kanneh-Masons. In 2015 the children appeared on Britain’s Got Talent and since then they have continued to make waves, performing and recording together as a group of seven. “The children’s approach to music is a very family-centred one,” Kadiatu says. “It’s about playing together and sharing together. We have always felt music is a central part to religion, to celebrating, to going to church.”
The faith, says Kadiatu, “forms a huge part of our family life. We take it very seriously and we understand it to be very important. It is a way for us to bond – it is something we do together every Sunday. We take the teachings very seriously too”.
Britain isn’t the easiest place to be a large family: the average household size is just two people, and the average number of children per mother is 1.89. So how do the Kanneh-Masons manage? “It can get messy when everyone is at home,” Kadiatu says. But religion is part of what makes it work. “Praying together gives us a huge sense of unity.”
Kadiatu describes the recent lockdown as a “wonderful” time for the family, in spite of the fact that their tours to Antigua and Australia were cancelled. Echoing the sentiments of many mothers, she says: “I’d been thinking about everyone leaving home and then suddenly, it was as if the past had come back”. In the hardworking fashion that is typical of the Kanneh-Masons, they used their time in lockdown to record their first family album, entitled Carnival and released just a few weeks ago.
Looking at the state of the world, the political climate and racial tensions, Kadiatu believes it is now “that we need God the most”. “It’s very important to turn to our Christianity now, and to know that life isn’t about anyone being superior to anyone else.”