First Encounters: Chi-Chi Nwanoku and Keith Pascoe

‘Ireland brought us back together’


Chi-Chi Nwanoku is a double bassist and a founder member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The eldest of five children of a Nigerian father and an Irish mother, she pursued a career in music after injury ended a promising athletics career. She grew up in Kent and Berkshire and now lives in London

The first time I saw Keith was when we were college students in our early 20s. He seemed incredibly composed, confident, like a good fun guy – he had a mischievous twinkle in his eye which I liked. We weren’t in each other’s social circles but I registered Keith as a kindred spirit.

I’d only started playing the double bass when I was 18, after an athletics injury. When I came out of hospital, my A Levels music teacher said, you have music coursing through your veins – now that your sprinting career is over, if you pick an unpopular orchestral instrument, you could just possibly have a career. I’d played piano since I was seven but I’d never played in an orchestra before. A few years later I got into the Royal Academy of Music.

Our paths moved in parallel but we did lose contact for a while – we were establishing ourselves, I got married, had children, we were getting on with our careers. It wasn’t until I got a call to work with the Vanbrugh Quartet in the early 2000s that we reconnected. Keith picked me up at Cork airport and it was absolutely riotous, we just hit it off. Although we hadn’t really hung out together, it felt as if we’d always known each other, were picking up where we’d left off.

Playing with Keith is great, he likes to tell stories, as I do; he’s such an open communicator and working with him is a continuation of our friendship.

I had been in Ireland just once before when I’d taken my mother there in 1986. She hadn’t been back to Ireland in 36 years, didn’t know how she’d be received: she was born in Cappamore in Limerick, grew up in Thurles, but was kind of abandoned by her family after she met and married my father, an Igbo from east Nigeria, in London. We grew up with lots of wonderful stories and memories that she gave us but she had a very very tough time. In London in the 1950s, it was “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs” – it was as much as my parents could do to find a roof over their heads.

It was the Vanbrugh tour that brought Keith and myself together as confirmed friends. I felt connected: because I’d grown up with my wonderfully Irish mother, everything – the way people spoke, were so inviting – made sense. But mother would never bring us back, she was terrified that people would be rude to us because of our skin.

I’ve been to Ireland since then, the last time to play in the West Cork Chamber Music Festival in Bantry. Keith has really taken Ireland to heart. In some ways I’m more Irish than him because I’ve it running through my veins, but in others, he’s more Irish than I am because he’s lived there for so long.

Chi-chi Nwanoku will give a double bass masterclass in the NCH at 1.15pm tomorrow, and perform there tomorrow evening with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment,

Keith Pascoe is a violinist with the Vanbrugh String Quartet. Originally from Liverpool, he lcame to Cork in 1998 after being headhunted by the Vanbrugh Quartet. In 2004, he also became conductor of the Cork Symphony Orchestra. He now lives in Cork with his partner André Sene Klein

Chi-chi and I were both students in London when we met, in different colleges. We both joined this amazing orchestra, the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra. It was independent of our colleges and it felt very grown up, much more fun. This was around 1978/1979. We did our very first tour with that orchestra, went to Guernsey: it was like being let out of school. We had incredible fun and still talk about it today – but whatever happens in Guernsey stays in Guernsey.

We had first met in St John’s Smith Square, a big converted church used as a concert hall in London. I remember her being incredibly friendly, bounding over to me. She’s very striking if you haven’t met her before; I didn’t notice until the last few years that she’s kind of diminutive for someone with such a towering personality. She has an infectious personality and incredible Irish eyes. I’m sure her students must learn so much from her just by her very presence.

Our paths parted for a lot of years after that, when I left orchestras around the mid-1980s and joined the Britten Quartet. I would see Chi-chi occasionally – everyone in London had to do a variety of things to earn a living. Then in 1998 I was headhunted by the Vanbrugh Quartet and came to Ireland.

I didn’t intend to stay in Ireland, at first I was just replacing somebody for a few months; then they said, she’s not coming back, do you want to stay? Now I play with the Vanbrugh Quartet [formerly the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet], conduct the City of Cork Symphony Orchestra and teach in DIT in Dublin. Recently, we’ve set up the National String Quartet Foundation, which is really important to us – it will leave a legacy after we’ve gone, fund things on a regular basis. Cork is home now: my partner and I have been here since 1998. We’ve got friends here and wonderful neighbours.

I hadn’t really registered Chi-chi’s Irishness until I came here. Then it dawned on me how interesting her story was, even though she had told me about it many years before. In the early noughties, we invited her to come on tour with the quartet. One of the places we went to was Thurles, where her mother is from. She did a radio interview and it was very moving. It started to hit home how very important her Irish roots were for her, what a poignant story really. I suppose Ireland in that sense brought us back together.

We later invited her to Bantry [Chamber Music Festival] and we played there. She came to stay with us after that with her son Jacob and I stayed with her not long ago in London. To work with, she takes no prisoners; it’s fantastic to work with someone who knows what they want, in the nicest way, and knows how to get it. Chi-chi has an infectious, vibrant personality and she’s athletic as a performer, exudes incredible energy.

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