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This 20-year-old British cellist has sparked a global music phenomenon


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Judy Woodruff: It's being called the Sheku effect, the rise of young people in Britain signing up for classical music lessons to play the cello.

Jeffrey Brown recently met the young man behind the phenomenon on tour in Baltimore.

It's for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: At the Mary Ann Winterling Elementary School in West Baltimore, it was cellos in the round, as children still learning their instrument came to hear and play with a young man who's well on the way with his, 20-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

Later that night, he performed with a different group of musicians, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Do you like performing?

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: I love performing.

Jeffrey Brown: You do? You're even smiling as you say it.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: You love it.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: I think it's -- I just love the feeling of having spent a lot of time thinking about this music and then just being able to share your thoughts about it, I guess, with an audience. The feeling of it happening kind of live in the moment is very exciting.

Jeffrey Brown: You may well have seen him perform yourself. Nearly two billion around the planet did in 2018 at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Yes, it was very different to what I'm used to, of course.


Sheku Kanneh-Mason: But it was really an enjoyable experience.

Jeffrey Brown: Like most top musicians, Sheku began playing very young.

But his experience was a bit different. He's the third of seven children who all took up classical music. Eldest sister Isata started it on piano. The others followed, choosing their instrument, piano, violin, cello.

They grew up in Nottingham, England, with two music-loving parents. His mother, originally from Sierra Leone, is a former lecturer at the University of Birmingham, and his father, from Antigua, a luxury hotel manager.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: My parents definitely loved classical music, and we were taken to lots of live concerts when we were young.

And that was definitely inspiring. Listening to C.D.s of great recordings of classical music was what certainly drew me to this style of music.

Jeffrey Brown: But you didn't see a lot of people who look like you playing classical music when you were growing up, did you?

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: No. I saw my siblings, but other than that, not really.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: But, for me, growing up, I was inspired by lots of other things, and I was never kind of conscious of that.

But, for a lot of young people, I can imagine it would be very difficult to see yourself doing something if no one who looks like you is doing it.

Jeffrey Brown: In 2015, the six oldest children made it to the semifinals of "Britain's Got Talent," where pop usually reigns.

A year later, Sheku was named BBC young musician of the year, the first black musician ever to win the competition.

And last December, he performed at Carnegie Hall with Isata, who herself recently put out an acclaimed recording of piano music. Sheku is still a student at London's Royal Academy of Music, but his career is well-launched, including a new recording of perhaps the most famous piece in the repertoire, Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto.

And he's much in demand. Just ask Baltimore symphony conductor Marin Alsop.

Marin Alsop: I had to get on the waiting list, you know?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, because he's in demand.

Marin Alsop: He's in demand. But I'm so happy for him. That's how it should be for a young artist.

He's a modest and a beautiful musician, and really represents the future.

Jeffrey Brown: Alsop knows something herself about blazing trails in classical music, having scored many firsts as a woman conductor and orchestra leader.

In 2008, she started a program called OrchKids to bring music education into Baltimore public schools.

Marin Alsop: I started thinking about how -- how can I influence the landscape for the future, make the landscape look like our community and...

Jeffrey Brown: Especially in a city like you're coming to, Baltimore, yes.

Marin Alsop: In a city like Baltimore, yes.

And I realized that it's just because kids don't all have equal access. This is the issue. And to play in an orchestra like the Baltimore Symphony, you have to start an instrument very early.

So, I just thought, let's experiment.

Jeffrey Brown: The program, she says, started with 30 students and now has 2,000. And on this day, a group of them had Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

He played a bit of Bach and Bob Marley, and all together, a boogie-woogie, with improvisation by the star visitor.

Afterwards, I talked with 10-year-old Camren Henderson and 12-year-Old Amaiya Sample.

Amaiya Sample: I liked him.

Jeffrey Brown: You liked him? Why?

Amaiya Sample: His facial expressions. He wasn't just -- he wasn't just all blank with his emotions.

What else did you learn from him?

Amaiya Sample: I learned to express yourself.

Camren Henderson: Sheku was telling us, like, how we should change some things. I think we should practice more in our classes.

And if it's a concert, we can remember how he told us to do it, because we don't know when he might come back and visit us and play for us again. But, next time, we should the concert for him.

Jeffrey Brown: And there was one other lesson in inspiration here, too, when I asked Camren why he'd first wanted to play the cello.

Camren Henderson: I picked the cello because I saw Amaiya playing it, playing boogie-woogie, and I wanted to learn it for myself.

Jeffrey Brown: You were the inspiration to him?

Amaiya Sample: He kept asking me to learn how to -- teach him how to play it.


Jeffrey Brown: How does that make you feel?

Amaiya Sample: Important.

Jeffrey Brown: As for Sheku Kanneh-Mason, he seems the humblest role model you will find.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: I see myself very much still someone learning and being inspired by people who have gone before me.

And so I wouldn't say that I am someone that everyone should look up to, but I would definitely be happy to be that for some people, and also to introduce people to lots of other amazing musicians.

Jeffrey Brown: For him, that means continuing to perfect his instrument and perform at the highest level, while also playing around. Soccer -- football to him -- is his game.

In case you hadn't noticed, Sheku is a rabid Arsenal fan.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: In another life, I would have been a footballer, I think.

Jeffrey Brown: But in this one?

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: In this one, cello is also amazing.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Baltimore.

Judy Woodruff: It's Sheku now, but watch out. Camren is coming right behind you.

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