By David Templeton
Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s latest album, Carnival, is a delightfully charming and ambitious undertaking, marking the first time the renowned cellist has recorded with his entire family. The Kanneh-Mason siblings—Isata, Braimah, Sheku, Konya, Jeneba, Aminata, and Mariatu—range in age from 11 to 24 and are all accomplished musicians. This was spectacularly well demonstrated on Britain’s Got Talent in 2015. Apropos enough for such an endeavor, the new album (released November 6 by Decca Classics) is what can rightfully be called a “family record,” a spirited blend of music and spoken word presented by one of the UK’s most celebrated musical families, offered for the pleasure of music-and-story-listening families all over the world.
At the heart of the recording is Camille Saint-Saëns’ 14-movement suite The Carnival of the Animals—from which the recording takes its name—generously presented alongside whimsical, original, animal-identified poems written by Sir Michael Morpurgo (Kensuke’s Kingdom, The Butterfly Lion, War Horse), who served as the UK’s Children’s Laureate from 2003–05. Many of the poems are performed by Morpurgo himself, alternating animals with Academy Award–winning actor Olivia Colman.
In addition, Morpurgo teams with Mariatu (the youngest of the family) for the charming original tale Grandpa Christmas, musically supported by an array of short pieces. The album concludes with a superb arrangement of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” I spoke with Sheku Kanneh-Mason about Carnival, and what it was like to record with his siblings for the first time.
How did Carnival come together? And how did you come to include spoken word pieces in addition to the musical recordings?
We, as a family, really wanted to record an album together. It’s something we always thought would be fun to do. The idea of including stories alongside the music comes from the fact that all of us, as children, grew up listening to records that linked various stories with music. That combination, particularly for children, is a really a special one.
We chose Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals because his portrayal of all of these different animals, done with music, and in a very humorous way, is really wonderful. Including poetry as spoken-word bits, that just made sense to us.
Carnival of the Animals is a self-contained package of pieces. How did you choose the compositions to accompany the Grandpa Christmas story?
Michael Morpurgo, who wrote the poems, had this other story, which we really loved. It’s a story with a very important message, about taking care of the Earth. We all read the story together and came up with pieces of music that we thought might fit. The animal poems, of course, were written to go along with the music. But for Grandpa Christmas, we needed music to go with the story. It was really a lot of fun.
It’s quite a range, from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy to Eric Whitacre’s The Seal Lullaby and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sea Murmurs. Did everyone have some input on what you wanted to choose for those pieces?
Everything went on a massive piece of paper. And we wrote down all of our ideas, what we thought might work, developing the whole shape of the program. The whole family was part of that.
And then you end the album with “Redemption Song.” Whose idea was that?
That was actually Jeneba. We were looking for something to arrange ourselves, for all of us to play, and she came up with “Redemption Song.” She’d been listening to Bob Marley that week, and it’s a song we all know and love, and we thought it would work really well for us.
Initially, it doesn’t seem like something that would pair obviously with Carnival of the Animals, but then when you hear it, it really does work. It’s got a very magical sound, the way it’s arranged and the way you perform it together.
I’m so glad to hear you say that. The theme for all the pieces on the album—from Carnival of the Animals to all of the other pieces we chose—was actually “magic.” We selected pieces that all have their own kind of magic to them. They are very short pieces, many of them, but they are jammed with character and magic. That was the thought behind all of it.
When did this idea for Carnival begin? Did you start working on it before the pandemic or after?
Oh, it was actually planned before the pandemic, and we knew we were going to record it this year. The pandemic paved the way for us to work together a little differently, because everyone came home during the lockdown, so we were all together in one place for the first time in years. We got to be together for a few months, rehearsing a lot and totally focusing on the album.
You’ve all performed together, on Britain’s Got Talent and elsewhere. But what was it like recording together for the first time?
For some of my siblings, it was the first time being in a recording studio, so that was really exciting. It was nice for them to have a chance to do that, and yes, it was just nice to have the whole family together working on a project like this. We all enjoyed it.
There are plenty of siblings in the world who love each other but could never imagine working together on something like this, who have to steel themselves just to come together for the holidays.
Well, we grew up all playing together. That was our introduction to music. The family would just sit down and play. Of course, we all have our own ways of working. We are very different as individuals, and we all have our own ideas about how something should be done, including the younger ones. But we enjoy coming together and sharing all of those differences.
With anyone you play with for a long time, you develop these kinds of special communications. There’s a feeling that comes when you all know each other so well—you can communicate very honestly. Which is useful, because no one’s going to get offended.
Were there any challenges or surprises along the way?
We all spent a lot of time working on the pieces and arranging them. There are always challenges that pop up. But the project came together in a way that felt very natural. Of course, we were recording it at Abbey Road, in the middle of a pandemic, and there were all these rules we had to follow very closely. There were challenges just in keeping everyone safe: the family and the technicians and some of the other musicians we worked with.
But it came together so naturally. The family vibe of the project was picked up by everyone who participated in it, including Michael and Olivia.
As for surprises, doing Carnival of the Animals was a surprise, because some of the pieces are well-known—“The Swan,” for one, and maybe “The Elephant,” and “Aquarium,” maybe—but until we started working on the project, I didn’t know a lot of them. So there were wonderful discoveries along the way. Many recordings of Carnival of the Animals only use the plums, the famous ones, so it was very nice to get to play the pieces properly.
Did you end up having a favorite?
I think we all ended up with our own favorites. I think “Aquarium” is probably the one most of us liked. I really like “Aviary,” about all the birds. That would be my favorite, but yes, we all ended up having a connection to different pieces.
What is it you and your sibling hope for from this album? What impact or impression would you like to see it make? We hope it will pass along that sense of magic and joy and the elements of wonder and surprise. We would be thrilled if children listened to this with their families, and another generation of musicians is inspired to be excited about classical music and feel the magic of storytelling and music married together. Hopefully it will have that effect. That would be wonderful.