In fact the reason they were almost late to our meeting was because of music. Rosamund told me ‘her brother put in, I think it was about two hours of practice this morning, for the absolute love of music and the pleasure and joy which it brought.’
We are talking at the opening of Matters of Life and Breath, a display featuring a cornet owned by her daughter Ella Roberta, and a Tibetan conch.
Ella Roberta died in 2013 at the age of nine. She was the first person in the world to have ‘air pollution’ given as cause of death. She was also a talented young musician who played the cornet, piano and guitar.
‘A lot of the stories about Ella are to do with illness and I think it was one of her consultants who said to me “oh, I really wish they would focus on some of the positive things that she did”. She was an extraordinary musician for her age.’
Music also plays a large part in memories of Ella Roberta. ‘I remember once I was about to leave the playground at Holbeach [Primary School]. When her head teacher called me back and said “why don’t you hang around for a moment?” And I always have this image of going into the dining hall, and there she [Ella] was with a guitar and she was ushering the whole crowd to kind of join in. And those sort of things are memories that I really hold dear.’
The cornet and the conch on display both belong to a family of wind instruments called ‘labrasones’, played by creating a buzzing sound with your lips. They also require extraordinary breath control. For many people with asthma, breathing exercises are a huge part of managing the condition, and playing a wind instrument is a great way to do this.
The roots of the cornet actually lie with the ancient conch. Conches are made from the shell of different kinds of sea snails, and are a symbol of the breath of life itself.
Before instruments as we know them today existed, the conch could be used to create a loud noise over large distances. The conch is also linked with spirituality and religion. When there is darkness and despair, music can be hugely helpful in soothing us and bringing us together.
‘It has got us through many a moment in this last 10 years.’ Rosamund tells me.
The display not only brings together these two incredible instruments, but also marks the progress through parliament of the Clean Air Bill, also known as Ella’s Law.
‘I mean it’s just extraordinary. It can be sometimes quite overwhelming. Because she was only nine. Today is a very humbling day.’
And music also, of course, helps us to remember people.
‘I don’t want Ella to just be remembered for the tragic thing that happened to her in the end but all the good things she did and especially the pleasure that she gave people who listened to her.’
This display was co-created with the Ella Roberta Foundation and Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah CBE.