Abel Selaocoe enters a bar in King’s Cross, London, with a small suitcase and a large, curved silver suitcase. “I’m sorry, sir, but you have to leave this at the cloakroom,” says the waitress. “I can’t – it’s mine life‘ exclaims Selaocoe, giving her a winning smile. She tries to insist and watches in amusement as he steers both suitcases into a corner. We’re here to talk about his life – his extraordinary journey from growing up in a township outside of Johannesburg to becoming a classical cellist of international renown and a singer, composer and improviser of dazzling originality. Selaocoe (pronounced Se-lau-chay) has developed his own music, in which he incorporates everything he is, his South African origins and his ideas about life. His cello is a multitasker, often a percussion instrument. And when the cello isn’t providing the percussion, Selaocoe employs his extraordinary voice instead: one moment full of melodic yearning, the next rumbling as if unearthed – an ancestral voice.
I heard him play at Bold Tendencies in Peckham on a show called One-Man Medicine which, given the impact it had on his audience, could have been medicine for the masses. Wearing a Mulberry suit, dreadlocks combed into a ponytail, he leans over his cello as if concentrating on a conversation, his face reacting to every note: mischievous, sinister, radiant… His classical training acts like a safety net for the soul. At the end the audience stood up as one. Later this year, Selaocoe will perform at the Lucerne Festival (for the classical elite) and at Womad. He is celebrated equally in both worlds for his charismatic musicianship. He was also recently named Artist in Residence at the Southbank Center and will be releasing his debut album, Where is Home (Hae Ke Kae).
Selaocoe settles on a sofa and explains that his home in the beginning was Sebokeng, “a large community south of Johannesburg. I’m from Zone 7 – Skelemeng.” There was a lot of singing around the house and his brother Sammy, who was eight years his senior, played the bassoon. On Saturdays, Sammy would take him to the African Cultural Organization of South Africa, an outreach school run by Michael Masote, “the South African godfather of classical music.” Selaocoe began playing the recorder but was drawn to the cello because he admits it was “big” (a little boy’s fondness). The size must have been less of an advantage as the brothers had to lug the instrument nine miles to and from the station from which they drove to Soweto.
The music school was popular with the parents, he remembers, because it brought the children out of the township. But from the start, Sammy was serious about practicing and encouraged Abel to do the same. Elementary school ended at 2 p.m., they walked the miles home, arrived at 4:30 p.m., watched a cartoon, and then practiced from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sammy told him, “No one puts you through that, you have to do that yourself.” He would add, “Just shut the door man, see what happens.”
What happened was that Selaocoe received a scholarship to attend the South African equivalent of Eton: St. John’s College in Johannesburg. Mary Selaocoe, his mother, did not live at home. She worked as a cleaning lady and lived in the quarters of a wealthy family. In a YouTube mini-documentary, their employers, Rosheen and Chris de Kock, recall their disbelief when they learned their maid’s son was going to St. John’s College. Their incredulity now seems offensive, but unfortunately could not be dismissed as out of place at this moment in South African history. Mary Selaocoe turns out to be an extraordinarily committed person: “She raised two pairs of children from different worlds: her own and that of her employer,” says her son in amazement. She worked tirelessly and supplemented her income by selling fruit and vegetables and sewing to feed her children. He adds, “I’m so grateful to my mom.”
At 13, Selaocoe was the only township boy in St. John’s (he’s 30 now), but he was undaunted: “It was tremendously exciting – a comfortable lifestyle compared to the township. And there was the prospect of making friends with people who weren’t like me, which we always dreamed of.” He owes the school a debt of gratitude for “the habits that kept me going. Like athletes, we have been taught to understand when to train, when not to train, when to rest our muscles, and how to understand where our motivation comes from.”
In 2010 another door opened: Selaocoe won a place at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (where he now resides). It was fun for him, “although I had to unlearn a lot of the rules in order to gain certain freedoms”. He particularly appreciates the cello’s “transformability”. It’s not just percussive, he says, it can also be a “singing” instrument. Asked about his musical tastes, he’s torn (they’re broad), but chooses Bach’s C major suite and “that sense of perspective in the prelude – going through all these other keys while staying in the same room”. . He sees groove as related: “If you’re a classical musician, you’ll say groove is a rhythm that repeats itself, but that’s dead wrong — the perspective changes every time you do it.” And he loves it ritual music: Taveners The Protecting Veil and Wagogo music from Tanzania.
His mother’s employers paid for her to come and hear her son at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. What did she think of watching him play? “I find that difficult to answer. She was fascinated by the place, but she advocates being down-to-earth. When she sees a lot of people, she has this idea that it’s easy to get carried away by the current. She was very happy to see me but said, ‘Keep your feet on the ground.'” For Selaocoe, the biggest challenge was staying grounded, with confidence: “It was difficult to understand that I was significant, because there is a romanticization of the West in South Africa – considered a mecca of classical music. I needed to understand that what I have is full of abundance and that not many people express themselves that way. When I arrived, the fear was great.” If he wonders what his musical purpose is, he finds the answer in a Zulu word: sithunyiwe. “It means ‘we were sent from the ancestors’.”
And then came the pandemic. “There have been some really dark times where I’ve felt trapped. But if you are from the township, you will be taught how and where to direct hardship. For me, that meant playing. It was like looking in the mirror for a long time – the mirror was improvisation.” Every day he still has “a few minutes of improvisational flow where I don’t stop or make judgments on myself. It often starts with the voice and if I don’t like it I just keep going until I find the flow… I love improvisation because we can always have a fresh conversation. And I love composition because it’s everywhere. It’s waiting for you to take it. It’s about being aware of what could be.”
The theme of his new album is loneliness and I want to re-examine the nature of that loneliness. I heard about the existence of a friend, a violist with Manchester Collective? “You’re researching, man!” he laughs but doesn’t elaborate. How would he answer the question of his album today – has the idea of home changed? “As an African cellist, I was always looking for a home. But home is not a geographical area, it is the places in life that give you strength – and these are not always comfortable.”
Only at the end of our conversation does Selaocoe introduce me to the cello that has been lying dormant in the corner the whole time: “It’s a copy of an old Montagnana,” he enthuses, “made by me [renowned cello-maker] Robin Aitchison.” He explains that the wood is garnished with “little grains of sand” to make the sound “come out as percussive.” When he first played this cello, it wasn’t love at first note because it seemed too loud. But today they are connected: “It’s about understanding each other,” he says. I tell him that when he plays the cello it feels like a natural extension of his body and he smiles. “That’s the hope,” he says.