Carl Craig and Chi-chi Nwanoku of the Chineke! Orchestra explain to Attack how and why their collaboration is another milestone in the illustrious history at The Royal Albert Hall.

In April this year Carl Craig performed an hour-long show with the Chineke! Orchestra at one of London’s most prestigious concert venues, The Royal Albert Hall. It was a huge moment for many reasons and groundbreaking for many of those who were present in the audience, and on stage, too. A first for Detroit techno and a first for the orchestra, who had never collaborated with an electronic music artist before. The feeling in the auditorium that night was one of triumph and jubilation, history being made for Carl, the Chineke! players, the founder Chi-chi Nwanoku and all of those who were there to witness the spectacle. Here Attack explores how this historic show came together with two of the key contributors, Chi-chi and Carl… 

“It was historic for me,” Carl Craig tells Attack. “I think I said it on the night, and I said it to Chi-chi before the show, ‘When they built the Royal Albert Hall, they weren’t thinking that somebody like me was gonna be playing there, they didn’t think anyone black was gonna play there’.”

Craig laughs as he speaks about his career-defining moment. You can hear the elation his voice, a sense of victory, joy and life-affirming achievement. Understanding the struggle that black artists have had to deal with throughout history makes the victory even sweeter. Chineke! is Europe’s only black and majority ethnic orchestra, and with Carl at the helm during their Royal Albert Hall show, it was a sight that wouldn’t have been possible even 50 years ago, let alone when the exquisite hall was opened in 1871. 

Carl Craig at Royal Albert Hall. Photo by ©Christie Goodwin
Carl Craig. Photo by ©Christie Goodwin.

Over the last few decades, the Hall has hosted sell-out shows from a wide range of black headliners from Sade to Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal, Salif Keita, afrobeat star WizKid and a whole host of UK grime stars for the Late Night Proms in 2015. Chineke! had performed at Royal Albert Hall once before, during the 2017 Proms. However, a performance of techno compositions by a black composer from Detroit by a majority black and ethnic orchestra broke new ground for the venue. 

The Chineke! Foundation was set up by Chi-chi Nwanoku in 2015 in order to provide a place for BME players to feel confident and gain a sense of belonging, which is often found wanting in the classical field. Since the adult and junior orchestras were formed they have performed at a wide range of respected concert halls across the UK and rest of Europe including: Queen Elizabeth Hall, The Southbank Centre, The Royal Festival Hall, St George’s Bristol, Brighton Festival, Cheltenham Festival and Salisbury Festival and the aforementioned show at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC’s world-famous Proms.

“At the Chineke! Foundation we share a philosophy about diversifying the classical music industry,” Chi-chi tells us. “When we do a concert performance, alongside Beethoven, Brahms and so on we’ll include a piece of music written by a composer of ethnicity, that can stand up alongside those better-known composers but has usually been written out of history. We’re researching and finding incredible pieces of music that can be played on stage alongside the classical greats. There are other classical composers, who are black, who never get listened to. We are bringing them on to the big stage.”

When it came to working with Carl his ethnicity was, of course, particularly exciting for Chi-chi, as well as his music. “Chi-chi was really happy that I’m a modern black composer and that I was outside of their realm,” Carl says. “They’re used to playing classical music by mostly white composers and, if it’s a black composer it’s probably not anything to do with electronic music.”

Chi-chi Nwanoku at Royal Albert Hall. Photo by ©Christie Goodwin
Chi-chi Nwanoku. Photo by ©Christie Goodwin.

Once Chi-chi was on-side the rest of the orchestra took her lead and she was pleasantly surprised to discover that a few of her players were familiar with Carl and his music. The foundations for the show were solidified with these early moments of connection and mutual respect. The relationship grew stronger thanks to a heartwarming peculiarity of Carl’s Detroit heritage. Damon Gupton, the conductor on the night, is another Detroit native and so a layer of ‘Detroit Love’ helped to reinforce the foundations of the collaboration.

“Damon’s from Detroit and I don’t know if he knew much about what I do beforehand, but it’s all Detroit love,” Carl says. “It would’ve been the same situation for me – if he’d have invited me to do something and I didn’t know who he was, but he was from Detroit, then more than likely I would do it. It’s that thing that we have here, we treat Detroit like a neighbourhood!”

The pianist Kelvin Sholar is another Detroit resident who Carl has been working with for around 20 years. The two first met through Francisco Mora when they were doing Innerzone Orchestra. Later, they worked on another project called Outerzone Orchestra at the North Sea Jazz Festival. “I thought that, not only was Kelvin was amazing on keys, but he has the same birthday as me and we’re both from Detroit… It was like, ‘Yeah! Alright!’. Me and Kelvin definitely have that Detroit love and with Damon up there, it just added to it,” Carl enthuses. “There was another player from Detroit up there with us, too. One of the violin players – her father is a well-known jazz guitarist from Detroit. We had all of us, and my kids were in the audience, so we definitely had some Detroit vibrations.”

Detroit Love is the name of Carl’s party brand, which he’s taken all over the world from BPM in Mexico to Off Week in Barcelona, Contact in Tokyo and Paradiso in Amsterdam among other places. He has also curated and released two ‘Detroit Love’ compilations, the latest of which came out in May this year, mixed by Carl himself. That local love was clear to see during the show, as a man who described himself as ‘some guy from The D’ stepped up on stage with the Chineke! Orchestra.

Carl is an experienced classical collaborator. His previous endeavours include work with Les Siècles Orchestra (2009), the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and his own Innerzone Orchestra, which was formed in the early 90s, recording an album ‘Programmed’ which was released in 1999. Carl’s Synthesizer Ensemble also merged electronic music with the classical side of things, appearing at Berlin’s Funkhaus and the Barbican in London. Of course, he also released the ‘Versus’ album which was recorded with Les Siècles Orchestra (under the direction of François-Xavier Roth) and pianist Francesco Tristano. But the Royal Albert Hall show was his pièce de résistance. “I enjoyed this one the best out of everything I’ve done in the orchestral realm,” he admits. 

Several factors were critical in making the show as smooth and successful as it was: firstly, Carl’s approach. Based on past shows he came at the collaboration from a position of experience, learning harsh lessons from previous orchestral performances – including the minimal amount of time available. “Orchestras are union-based militia! So they get fucking militant, and you have to be able to deal with that,” Carls explains. In Poland he had to contend with an orchestra that seemed to be sabotaging the conductor he’d put in place to lead them. “I’m hearing things from my conductor, their people are calling my people all the way over in Detroit, Barcelona and England,” he reveals. “There was this international fight going on, it was kinda fucked up. It was nice because the show turned out well, but this show was way better because we didn’t have any of that confrontation and we did things a little bit different as far as the rehearsals are concerned.”

Orchestras are union-based militia! So they get f*cking militant, and you have to be able to deal with that

By meeting with all of the section leaders from Chineke! Carl was able to set out his needs and talk through all of the parts, making sure everything was clear from the outset. This meant they could go into two and a half days of rehearsals and get to work right away without the need for too much discussion. With orchestras time is limited so, by teeing everything up beforehand, Carl and the section leaders were able to get the ensemble working efficiently. 

“We had a whole day on the Saturday; the first half was with the section leaders and the other part of the day was with the orchestra,” Carl told us. “The next day was half the day with the orchestra, and then we did the performance that night. They have the music first and the sound files, so they can hear how it’s played and go along with it. They came prepared but it’s not like a band, where you’re rehearsing in someone’s garage for weeks and weeks and weeks.” 

“You get a very short amount of time with orchestras before you actually do the show,” he adds. “And that demonstrates the value of the players, because for us to be able to do that show and everybody be as good as they were means the caliber of the players was incredible.”

Chi-chi was equally complimentary about Carl, “I was impressed with Carl as a composer, I like his work. He’s calm, very easy to work with,” she tells Attack. “He’s very gracious and enabling for people who’ve never heard his music before. He’s not an egotistical twat! I look forward to the next opportunity. He felt very at home with us because we’re a majority black and ethnic orchestra of the highest quality.”

Carl Craig with Chineke! Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall. Photo by ©Christie Goodwin.
Carl Craig with Chineke! Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall. Photo by ©Christie Goodwin.

However, she also admitted the repetitive nature of techno music was physically demanding – more so than a classical piece, which is usually composed of a variety of moving parts that shift and evolve. “My plucking finger became very callous and very, very painful – that’s what happens when you keep hammering away at one part of you,” she quips. “That wouldn’t happen with an electric guitar, but with an acoustic instrument, you have to make that sound. We all came away with blisters all over our fingers.”

But the hard work was more than worth as everyone in the orchestra came away feeling satisfied and invigorated by performing music that was completely different to their usual output. “It was epic, really. Especially because we weren’t familiar with his work,” Chi-chi explains. “As a performer, you’ve got the notes that you get given – there are two notes and I’m looking at it like, ‘What’s this going to be like? Nothing happens, nothing changes!’. But, when it was all put together, right from the very first minute we started rehearsing, something happens! It was something that we all felt satisfied as being part of, because it’s the bigger picture.”

Adding, “It’s like a Beethoven symphony, your part alone is not what makes the symphony, you need all the other parts for it to make sense. It was the same but in a more minimalistic way.” 

Another key aid in making the show go with a bang was the Royal Albert Hall’s soundsystem. Already one of the best concert PAs in the UK, it was upgraded to the tune of over £2million over a period of six months. For those in the auditorium that night, the sound was crisp, vibrant and, at times, palpable – especially the bass that undulated through everyone’s seats. “I didn’t realise how good the soundsystem was until I saw a video from someone’s iPhone and I could hear everything,” Carl beams. “I was like, ‘Shit, this sounds amazing!’. It’s not coming from the board or a direct connection with the console, just the room going into an iPhone and it was sounding great.” 

Even some of the older members of the audience, Chineke! fans who’d decided to put their concerns to one side and experience something new, enjoyed the show – much to their own surprise. “We had old Chineke! classical supporters in the audience,” Chi-chi tells us. “Like Lady Hollick who came with three other pensioners who were worried they were going to be listening to awful headbanging music, but found themselves raving and getting down! They thought it was absolutely fantastic and these are women in their seventies.”

A sign of things to come perhaps as The Royal Albert Hall opens up its programming for more alternative, contemporary performers. In 2015 the BBC’s Late Night Proms brought in Pete Tong and his Radio 1 Ibiza Prom, and last summer Germany’s Innervisions crew took over the main hall for a stunning concert featuring special performances from Ame, Dixon, Marcus Worgull, Henrik Schwarz, Nina Kurtela, Howling and more. 

“One of our aims ahead of our 150th (birthday in March 2021) is to open up the Hall to new audiences, and show that it’s a place for everyone,” Lucy Noble, artistic director at the Hall, told press in August 2018. “Because of our royal connection, and some heavyweight classical performances, people might find it intimidating or off-putting, so it’s about knocking down those barriers,” she added. 

Marcus Barnes is a freelance journalist and author of “Around the World in 80 Record Stores” available from the Attack store.

7th August, 2019

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