Skaila Kanga was born in Mumbai, India into a musical family. Her father was a violinist who studied with Mehli Mehta (Zubin Mehta’s father) and later travelled to Europe to study at the Paris Conservatoire. After winning a position in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Skaila and her mother joined him, and the family settled in London in 1950. Skaila began learning the piano at the age of five. She won a Junior Exhibition to the Royal Academy of Music at 11 years old and continued her piano studies there as a full time student with Vivian Langrish.
Her interest in the harp began at 17 years old when she had a chance to study with Tina Bonifacio, Sir Thomas Beecham’s harpist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who was a former pupil of Henriette Renie. She continued her studies with Marisa Robles and then with Renata Scheffelstein, principal harp of the Philharmonia Orchestra, a former student of Marcel Tournier.
After two years at the Royal Academy in 1966, Skaila was offered a short season of Swan Lake and shortly afterwards a six month contract with the Royal Ballet touring orchestra. The BBC Concert Orchestra then offered her a weekly contract to deputise for their harpist who was on a one year sabbatical in Australia.
'Skaila is unique in speaking in so many musical languages and executing them with panache and the warmest of professionalism'
~ Mike Mower
Subsequently Skaila began to freelance with all the London and regional orchestras under such eminent conductors as Boult, Kempe, Guilini, Monteux, Haitink, Maazel, Barenboim, Previn, Solti, Klemperer, Mehta, Barenboim, Rattle, Svetlanov, Andrew Davis, Colin Davis, Hugo Rignold and Sir Neville Marriner.
At this time she also worked extensively with Pierre Boulez and the BBC Symphony Orchestra alongside Sidonie Goossens and Maria Korchinska. In 1971 she began playing with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a collaboration which has lasted for many decades.
EARLY CAREER (1966-70)
During her teenage years Skaila accompanied both her father’s violin students and her fellow pupils at the Junior Academy in duos and chamber music. Her sight reading and improvising skills enabled her to be booked for session work in the late 1960s. She recorded and toured with the Bee Gees, and played on albums with James Taylor, Rick Wakeman, and notably Elton John who was Skaila’s classmate during her Junior Academy times. The ELTON JOHN album of 1970 included classics such as Your Song, The Greatest Discovery and 60 Years On.
She accompanied the Orpington Junior Singers in broadcasts, television and records and did countless performances of Ceremony of Carols with various choirs.
In those early years, she also played in shows at Drury Lane and the Palace Theatre, performed concertos with the Chanticleer Orchestra under Ruth Gipps, played Ariadne and Pelleas at Glyndebourne with the LPO and did an opera season with the Ulster Orchestra.
Skaila’s first film session was in May 1968 for ‘Oliver!’ composed by Lionel Bart and Johnny Green at Shepperton Studios.
1970 was a special year with engagements with the London Sinfonietta, English Chamber Orchestra, BBC Radio Orchestra, a season with the Kirov Ballet at the Royal Festival Hall and a concert on 16th November at the same venue with Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope. There were two further first collaborations that year which both lasted 30 years: the start of recording sessions with Sidney Sax and his National Philharmonic Orchestra and the first of many television series with the Alyn Ainsworth Orchestra for both BBC and ITV.
In the 1970’s Skaila had four children, Lisa 1973, Mark 1975, Joanne 1977 and David 1979. Her symphonic and session career continued in London as touring was not always possible. A few highlights in the seventies were a series of concerts, recordings and tv appearances with The Carpenters at the London Palladium in 1976, the formation of a duo with the virtuoso harmonica player Tommy Reilly in 1977 which lasted for 22 years, and joining the renowned Nash Ensemble the same year until 2002, as well as the aforementioned Academy of St. Martin’s.
By the 1980s Skaila was focusing mainly on recording sessions, her duos and chamber music concerts mainly with the Nash Ensemble at the Wigmore Hall, St John’s Smith Square, the Southbank and at major festivals across the UK. She also gave concerts in USA at Princeton University, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Israel. In her 25 years with the Nash, she premiered thirty new works by composers including Richard Rodney Bennett, Nicholas Maw, Julian Anderson, James McMillan, Simon Holt, Mark- Anthony Turnage, Richard Cawston, Jean Francaix, Sally Beamish, Colin and David Matthews, Michael Berkeley, John Casken, Rupert Bawden, John Cooney, Anthony Payne, Gordon Kerry and Elena Kats Chernin.
During these years she also worked with Sinatra, Streisand, Pavarotti, Domingo, Joan Sutherland, Jose Carreras, Barbara Hendricks, Kiri Te Kanawa, Angela Gheorghiu, Scott Pilgrim, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Miklos Rosza, John Morris, Jerry Fielding, Michel Legrand, Angela Morley, James Horner, Pat Metheny, Michael Nyman, James Galway, Richard Rodney Bennett and into the 1990’s and onwards with Itzak Perlman, Sarah Chang, Sumi Jo, Jose Cura, John Harle, John Williams (guitar), Joshua Bell, Yvonne Kenny, Nicola Benedetti, Kate Royal, Albrecht Mayer and many more.
Skaila has also played in 16 Royal Variety Performances and TV galas such as the Prince’s Trust Gala, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 50th Birthday concert and Elizabeth Taylor’s Birthday Concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
In 1993 Skaila joined the London Mozart Players until 2019 and gave many concerts, both chamber and orchestral as well as several premiere recordings.
WRITING AND ARRANGING
Skaila began writing in 1977 following the formation of her duo with Tommy Reilly, virtuoso harmonica player, as there was no repertoire for that unusual combination. Skaila’s compositions and arrangements were recorded on the Decca and Chandos labels and performed in concerts and on television. She wrote albums of library production music for films and television for KPM/EMI and Boosey and Hawkes.
She has recently continued in this field with several solo and orchestral albums for Audio Network.
Her solo and chamber music arrangements began to be published in the early 1990s and so far she has produced 24 books from Beginners to Advanced levels. Skaila worked closely with the ABRSM for many years and several of her compositions are on the harp exam syllabus from Grades 1-7. They are also included in the Trinity/Guildhall exam lists. She composed all the Sightreading tests for pedal and lever harp for all levels for the Associated Board.
Since 2003 her book Minstrel’s Gallery has been the No 1 choice for beginners of all ages. Her chamber music - flute, viola and harp - arrangements of Ravel’s Sonatine, Chaminade’s Flute Concertino Opus 107 and Mozart’s Rondo K386 have been widely performed all over the world.
In 2019 Skaila was commissioned to write a solo harp piece for the Royal Academy of Music’s 200th Anniversary as part of their 200 Series. ‘Beyond the Clouds, an Ode to Climate Change’ was created in the first lockdown of 2020. The performance is preceded by a narration by the harpist, which has been translated into 13 languages by Skaila’s harp friends all over the world. It was premiered in November 2020 by Esther Beyer at the Royal Academy.
Skaila has written many articles, including for Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, AHS Journal, UKHA magazine, Harp Column, WHC Review, Harp Today, Heroes and was featured in the Musicians’ Union magazine article ‘Hall of Fame’ in 2010. Her lockdown YouTube interviews included In Session with Tommy Pearson, The Harp Channel and Lockdown Lowdown for the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
A full list of Skaila’s books can be found in the Bibliography Link below and information on the publications are on her publishing website Maruka Music.
Skaila has been married to the legendary session drummer Harold Fisher for over 30 years and has six grandchildren and three step-grandchildren. Her hobbies are embroidery, cooking, gardening and baking cakes!