Sheku Kanneh-Mason, an English cellist, chats with Kevin Cooper about playing at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, having a Nottingham City Transport bus named after him, the release next year of his album Elgar, and his forthcoming UK tour dates.


Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a British cellist who first came to prominence when he and five of his siblings all completed on Britain’s Got Talent in 2015. Along with pianist Isata, Braimah who plays the violin, Konya and Aminata who both play the piano and violin, and cellist and pianist Jeneba, performed Csardas in the first audition and they sailed through.

They made it to the semi finals of the show when they played a musical medley of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Prokofiev’s Montagues And Capulets, Clean Bandit’s Rather Be and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Sheku was the first black musician to win the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year Award and later at the 2017 BAFTA ceremony he played a cello arrangement of Hallelujah. The following year Sheku was back playing at the BAFTA’s with the rest of his family.

In 2017 he released a three track debut EP which was followed up with his first full length album, Inspiration, which saw him become the highest charting Young Musician on the UK’s Official Albums Chart.

In May 2018 he was honoured to be asked to play at the royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

He will be releasing his follow up album, Elgar in January 2010.

Whilst busy touring Sheku took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Sheku, how are you today?

I’m very well thank you Kevin, in fact I would go as far as to say that I am doing well, but more to the point, just how are you today?

I’m very well thank you and before we go on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No, not at all, it’s my pleasure.

And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

(Laughter) I have to say that life at the moment is great. I have a lot of interesting and exciting things coming up so yes, life is good.

You are currently in the midst of a massive tour, so I have to ask you, how is everything going?

At the moment all going really well, to be honest with you. Performing is what I enjoy doing the most. I try to make each performance different in some way, and I really do love performing a lot.

Well, you have only got another thirty dates to go, and then you can put your feet up and have a break (laughter).

That’s right, thank you for reminding me of that (laughter).

You are going to be playing a lot of dates in Germany and America. Would you say that the audiences over there are in tune with just what it is that you are doing?

Yes, they are, and I really do love playing in Germany. It is a wonderful country with such a rich history of classical music. The audiences over in America are so enthusiastic; they really do respond to what it is that I am doing. I love both of those places as a tourist, if that makes sense (laughter).

Are you trying to tell me that you get enough time off from the shows to enable you to do some sightseeing?

(Laughter) yes, I do which is really rewarding. I have to admit that sometimes it is literally in and out, but I do often get to see bits of the city where I am performing which is really nice.

For those of us that are not going to be fortunate enough to see you on this tour, what format does the show take?

To be totally honest with you, the show differs from place to place. Sometimes it will be just me with my older sister, Isata Kanneh-Mason, on the piano plus there will be quite a lot of shows that have been written and orchestrated for cello and full orchestra. There will be a range of different repertoires, different pieces, and I really am enjoying playing whatever is called for by the different audiences.

Now I must tell you that you have upset quite a few people with your selection of venues for the current tour.

Really, how have I managed to do that?

Nottingham is not one of the cities on the tour schedule.

(Laughter) yes, I know, that’s true. But let me promise you that I will be back to perform in Nottingham in a couple of years’ time. I love performing at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham so I will be looking forward to coming back to Nottingham and performing there. That, for me, will be something really special.

What do you think to the Royal Concert Hall?

It is such a very special place, and I just love the whole vibe there. It really is a fantastic place to play.

Now we really should talk about your forthcoming album, Elgar, which is an album of works anchored around Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which you have recorded with The London Symphony Orchestra under the watchful eye of Sir Simon Rattle and I have to say that I love it.

Thank you for saying that. It is always a very nice feeling whenever someone tells you that they like what you have done, or what it is that you are doing, so thank you.

Are you happy with the finished article?

Yes, I am, I am really pleased with the thing that I chose to do, and I am especially pleased with how the album came out. I am really happy, and I am really excited at the thought of sharing the album with the world.

I personally love what you have done with Elgar’s Variations On An Original Theme Op. 36 Enigma – 9. Nimrod (Adagio) and I have to say that I personally feel that it the most uplifting piece of music that I have ever heard.

I totally agree with you, that really is a truly beautiful piece of work. To hear it with a cello ensemble, to me, is so very special. I really loved recording that piece.

Then, of course, I am a lifelong fan of (Paul) Simon and (Art) Garfunkel and I love what you have done with Scarborough Fair.

I am so glad to hear that. That is really cool. I really do love that song, and that’s why I chose to record it for the album. It was great for me to be able to record that song with cello and guitar. It was nice for me to be able to bring something different to that song, whilst being true to the original essence of the song.

Putting you on the spot, do you have a favourite piece on the album?

That’s easy; my all-time favourite piece of music is Elgar’s Cello Concerto. It is the piece that I grew up with, and it is the piece that made me want to be a cellist. To me, it really is a special piece of music.

How was it working with Sir Simon Rattle?

I have to be honest with you and say that was really special. Sir Simon is such a special musician, he is full of ideas, he listened to what I had to say and really made me feel really free whenever I played with him. For me, that really was a wonderful opportunity.

You currently have a release date for the album of 10th January 2020. When did you finish the album, and how long has it been sitting on the shelf waiting to be unleashed?

I recorded the cello concerto back in June this year, and then the rest of the album in September so not that long ago really. The whole thing was finished at the end of September.

Are you a meddler or can you walk away from the album and wait patiently for its release date to come around?

(Laughter) oh no, I will leave it well alone. All of the editing is finished so there is no more that I can do. Of course, every time that I play it something will be different, but I am really happy with the way that I presented it on the day that we were recording it.

For you, the last few years have been a whirlwind, have you managed to catch your breath yet?

Yes, I have, I always make sure that I have time to relax and make sure that I get some time off from the music side of things. However, I do make sure that I am able to take full advantage of the wonderful opportunities that present themselves to me. For me, it is good for me to have some time off as well as performing; otherwise it is possible for me to run out of energy and burnout. If I am to do this for the rest of my life, then it is important for me to take those breaks.

What do you like to do to relax when you get some downtime?

The big thing that I like to do is to play football and I do that as often as I can. I like to read, go for walks and generally chill out with my friends.

Now that you have opened the can of worms, and bearing in mind that you are from a city that has two famous football teams, I have to ask you, who do you support?

(Laughter) this is going to sound awful, but I actually support Arsenal.

On that note Sheku, let me once again thank you for speaking to me today…. (Laughter).

(Laughter) don’t be like that Kevin, I never intended to offend you (laughter).

The last time that I was at The Emirates was on Tuesday 24th September.

Was that when we beat you 5-0 in the cup?(laughter).

Yes, it was, I had an awful drive down there, we lost 5-0, thank you for reminding me, I received a Fixed Penalty Notice for £60 so I really do hope that I never see the place again (laughter).

(Hysterical laughter) I’m so sorry, but you and I are cool?

Of course we are, at the end of the day it was simply a game of football (laughter). Now moving swiftly on, they always say that you should never believe your own publicity but when The Telegraph writes ‘the world’s most talented family’ how does that make you feel. Does it lift you or does it bring added pressures?

To be totally honest with you, we as a family, never really think about things like that. I have never thought as being one of the world’s most talented people. I have been very lucky not only with talent but with the opportunities that have come my way. What you also have to remember is that those opportunities only come your way if you are prepared to put in the hard work that is needed. So in answer to your question, I tend not to read things such as that.

You have received numerous awards over the last few years. Which has given you the greatest pleasure?

I would say that the award that I am most proud of is The BBC Young Musician of the Year which I won in 2016. For me, that is the most special.

And what about Nottingham City Transport naming a bus after you?

(Laughter) I love that. I really was honoured when I heard about that. That is one of the great things about being from a smaller city such as Nottingham. There is a sense of pride and belonging and let me tell you that I am very proud of being from Nottingham and I am so please that Nottingham has recognised just what it is that I have been doing. That is what is lovely about being from a place like that. Had I grown up in somewhere such as London, there is not that sense of pride amongst the individuals so receiving an award such as that would not be as nice.

You are proud of being from Nottingham, but you support a London football club (laughter).

(Laughter) let’s not go there.

I can’t speak to you without mentioning that wedding.

(Laughter) okay, if you must.

Where were you when you received official confirmation that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle wanted you to perform at their wedding?

I was actually on my way back home after coming out of a rehearsal session in London. Naturally, it caught me by surprise, but it was such a massive honour for me as well.

What about on the day, were you nervous at all?

Nervous no, I don’t really get nervous when I perform. Of course, that performance was very different to the performances that I am used to, but I wasn’t nervous. However, I was extremely excited (laughter).

You originally began playing the violin; why the shift to the cello?

You will laugh at this, but I actually played the violin for about a month (laughter). I can remember watching a full orchestra performing and being really excited by the sound and the look of the cello. It was at that point that I wanted to switch from the violin to the cello. I don’t know exactly what it was that drew me to the cello, I just remember being drawn to the instrument and wanting to be a cellist.

Where would you like to see yourself in five years’ time?

I would just say that hopefully I will be continuing to perform around the world and continuing to explore as much music as I possibly can, seeing where that takes me.

What was the first record that you bought?

That would have been Jacqueline du Pré performing Brahms: Sonatas For Cello And Piano No.1 In E Minor, Op.38 & No.2 In F, Op.99.

Who did you first see performing live?

That was Julian Lloyd Webber performing in Nottingham at The Royal Concert Hall with The Nottingham Youth Orchestra.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

That was Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.9 2nd Movement. It was a Yehudi Menuhin recording. I was listening to that and it really did make me cry.

How will you be spending Christmas?

This year, the whole of the family is getting together with my mum’s sister and her family, in Mid-Wales. There will be thirty or so of us, in the Welsh countryside so hopefully it will be really nice.

On that note Sheku, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been delightful. Good luck with the tour and let’s see you performing back here in Nottingham as soon as we can.

You take care Kevin and I promise you that I will be back in Nottingham soon. Bye for now.