Abel Selaocoe Finds a Home in Improvisation

MANCHESTER, England — On a recent evening at the Bridgewater Hall here, Abel Selaocoe surveyed the audience from his cello podium. Holding his bow aloft like a staff, the musician asked attendees to add their voices to the strutting groove sweeping the auditorium.

This was The Oracle, a touring program built around Selaocoe’s multiplicity: During the concert, the South African artist, 30, best known for his work on the cello, moved swiftly between roles as a singer, improviser, section player and master of ceremonies. During the evening, Selaocoe performed with the chamber group Manchester Collective, covering Stravinsky, Vivaldi and Mica Levi, and with his trio, Chesaba, adding influences from groove-centered improvisation and sounds from across the African continent. In a classical music industry that encourages performers to be either/or, Selaocoe has chosen both — and more.

Themes of belonging, journey and history punctuate Selaocoe’s debut album, “Where is Home (Hae Ke Kae),” which arrives Friday on Warner Classics. The genre-blending album harnesses an intimate emotional energy that is disrupted by regular fiery outbursts, as on the hymn-like “Ibuyile I’Africa / Africa is Back” and the spiky “Ka Bohaleng / On the Sharp Side.” (The album’s name and many of the track titles include translations in African languages, including Sotho and Zulu.)

In recent years, Selaocoe’s ability to float above rigid genre categories has resulted in a growing influence among a classical music community increasingly conscious of its deference to longstanding traditions. In 2021, he curated a concert at the BBC Proms, one of the world’s largest classical music festivals, and he is an artist in residence at London’s Southbank Center for its upcoming season. Even as he is embraced by these British institutional spaces, his additive approach is deeply rooted in his homeland’s rich musical traditions.

“South African tradition doesn’t draw these hard lines between performance music, participative music, music for daily activities,” Gwen Ansell, the author of “Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music and Politics in South Africa,” said in a recent video interview. Instead, music is “just part of what happens,” she added.

Born in 1992 in Sebokeng, a township south of Johannesburg, Selaocoe’s journey with the cello began when he followed his older brother, Sammy, to Saturday school at the African Cultural Organization of South Africa in Soweto, another township around 30 miles away.

Traveling to class on a packed train, on which passengers resorted to standing in the spaces between carriages, Selaocoe would remove the bridge of his cello, take off the endpin and put both parts in his pocket, standing with the instrument flat against his chest to take up as little space as possible. He began playing on a shared instrument, before teachers spotted his potential and gifted him his own.

In a classical music industry that encourages artists to be either/or, Selaocoe has chosen both, drawing on his homeland’s rich musical traditions even as he is embraced by institutional spaces.Credit…Leon Barker

Growing up, his brother, who also works as a musician, “had a philosophy that, if you’re living in a township, in a place that doesn’t have a lot of sustenance, and employment, you have to start looking really early,” Selaocoe said. Selaocoe listened — though he would later come to realize the townships’ own unique artistry — and at 13 won a scholarship to St John’s College, a prestigious boarding school in Johannesburg.

At St John’s, Selaocoe dreamed of a move to Europe, and his classmates romanticized the continent as “the mecca of classical music, of musical expression,” he said. After studying with the teacher Michael Masote, who was one of the most influential voices in South African classical music, Selaocoe eventually took the leap in 2010, when he enrolled at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester at 18.

Despite his classical training in the cello, everything stems from singing for Selaocoe. “The voice does things my body cannot imagine, but my musicality can,” he said over lunch near his home in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, a suburb south of Manchester.

Selaocoe learned to sing the same way one might pick up a language in childhood: “by seeing adults do it and copying them.” Growing up, his parents, a domestic worker and a mechanic, taught him cultural ceremonies and church. About six years ago, a friend gave Selaocoe a grounding in umngqokolo, a form of South African overtone singing, he said, which added a new dimension to the musician’s already charismatic performances.

His onstage request at Bridgewater Hall for the audience to join in the performance is typical of Selaocoe’s belief in the connective power of the voice. In rehearsals for a 2018 Manchester Collective show, “Sirocco,” Selaocoe “would sing things to demonstrate to other ensemble members,” Adam Szabo, the chief executive of the group, said in a recent phone interview. “We pushed him to do it in the show, something he hadn’t done much before at all.” Now, Szabo said, he’s refined that singing in his practice, “which is this amazing melting pot of different influences.”

Over lunch, Selaocoe returned frequently to idea that “singing is so universal.” But that universality has its limits. For the music journalist and author Ansell, “the song is universal, the fact that people sing is universal, but in fact the language, the meaning, the discourse of that song, isn’t.”

Selaocoe said he wanted his work to offer routes to universally felt experiences. “There are things that go beyond language, the things that are just part of the human instinct,” he said. “The first one is movement — the idea of expressing with your body. Then we go even deeper into things like faith.”

Selaocoe’s relationship to faith is multifaceted: In addition to attending Methodist and Apostolic churches, he was brought up around traditional medicinal, healing and spiritual practices. “My heart has always stayed with appeasing my ancestors — seeing if I can get in touch with them, to ask for advice,” he said.

Themes of belonging, journey and history punctuate Selaocoe’s debut album, “Where is Home (Hae Ke Kae),” which was released Sept. 23. Credit…Adama Jalloh for The New York Times

At Bridgewater Hall, Selaocoe channeled this history through aphoristic pronouncements, telling the audience: “The future is in the past.” Connecting with the past — in and out of his music — is one way Selaocoe has explored the question posed by his album’s title.

“‘Where is home?’ is no longer [just] a question of the geographical space,” he said. “It can be an ideology, within artistic practice, or the people I surround myself with.”

Artistically, Selaocoe’s current home is in improvisation, a shift confirmed when he was invited to perform with the renowned Art Ensemble of Chicago at the 2019 London Jazz Festival. That concert was a key moment “in understanding that my expression doesn’t always have to be prepared‌,” he said. “Coming from a classical music background, preparation is almost everything.” But with an improvised performance, he added, “I leave the moment on‌ ‌stage and be like, ‘I can never recreate what we did.’”

Still, Selaocoe spends a lot of time with classical ensembles, introducing fresh approaches to groove, including techniques informed by Africa’s wealth of stringed instruments. Does he meet resistance to his ideas? “Yes,” he said, “but I think it’s important that you choose your collaborators well. As soon as you have curiosity in the room, that’s 70 percent of the job done.”

Selaocoe has also paid attention to how his performances are marketed. “If I’m coming to play a sonata, they’ll call me a classical cellist,” he said. “But if I play something else, I’m no longer that — I’m just, like, an African musician.”

His dream, he said, is for his mixed-genre, groove-orientated approach to become intuitive. To be able “to walk into a room, set a groove and people understand what to do with their bows, rather than be told,” he said.

“When you put it on a piece of paper, it looks dead simple,” he added. “And it really isn’t.”

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