By Maria Messias Mendes
"A music about learning to understand different ways we seek refuge, not always a place of comfort but one of empowerment that allows potential to live a fulfilled life."
(Abel Selaocoe, 'The Strad')
Taking refuge is the inspiration behind the cellist-singer-composer Abel Selaocoe's debut recording. It asks us the question: where is home? The classically trained, South African artist has chosen a mixed-genre affectual approach, which has gained him a growing influence in the classical music community. Selaocoe interweaves his musical, cultural and personal experiences to create a distinctive sound that refuses genre labels. His 2022 debut album Where is Home (Hae Ke Kae) brings together the African and European Baroque music that has shaped him, blurring the boundaries between these traditions to explore themes of belonging, journey and history to ask, 'Where is home?'
Selaocoe was born in 1992 in Sebokeng, a township south of Johannesburg. His musical journey began as he followed Sammy, his older brother, to Saturday School at the African Cultural Organisation of South Africa in Soweto: 'It all began with my brother', Selaocoe tells Tom Steward in an interview for The Strad. He later went on to enrol at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where he continued his classical training to become a traditional concert cellist. Yet, as Selaocoe explains, 'as time went on, [his] deep ancestral memory of other musics just wouldn't go away. [He] couldn't leave it behind.' Encouraged by his teacher, Hannah Roberts, his journey to 'find [his] essence' continued. He brings to his music the South African tradition that does not draw hard lines between music meant for performance, participation and daily activities. As Gwen Ansell explains in her book Soweto Blues, music in this tradition is 'just part of what happens.' Selaocoe sees this as a link to Baroque music, and its own form of improvisation - in Baroque music we, for example, have 'Baso Continuo', where harmonies are realised from a given baseline and musicians also improvised melodic ornamentation. For Selaocoe, this gives him the freedom to invite broader interpretations and stretching expectations. This means he can focus on telling the story about finding your home, your place of empowerment.
We can see the result of Seloacoe's journey in the album's title, both in English and Sesotho. This album is multilingual, but the title also reflects its diverse programme, bringing together European and African influences to create a new, vibrant sound. The opening track is an arrangement of the South African hymn 'Ibuyile I'Africa / Africa is Back', which was sung during the struggle against apartheid. Selaocoe shows us what South Africa looks like to him in this quiet rendition of the isiZulu hymn: 'I wanted to start with this feeling of a hymn, because every meeting in South Africa starts and ends with a hymn. That the way we commune', Selaocoe explains in an interview with Songlines. The great US cellist Yo-Yo Ma features on this track, after having performed the track together for Desmond Tutu's 90th birthday celebrations in 2021. For Selaocoe, this underlines his message that 'we can rethink what Africa means for ourselves and we can stand on the shoulders of giants like Tutu and still carve our own future.' Cello harmonies and piano open Selaocoe's rendition of the hymn. It then moves to lyrical bowing, over which his rich voice joins with a vocal trio. The hymn breathes and stretches, interwoven with the cellos improvising together, culminating in a joined chorus of voices and instruments. Another example later in the album is his version of GB Platti's Sonata No.7, in which the movements are played on therobo and then dissolve into cello and kora melismas. The pieces inspired by Southern African musical tradition sit side by side with J.S Bach and G.B Platti. His sensibilities find a way to meld these traditions into something new.
Selaocoe breathes fresh air into the Western classical works through both lyrical and instrumental improvisation. This improvisation in Selaocoe's artistic home. He explains in an interview with Hugh Morris for the New York Times: 'Coming from a classical music background, preparation is almost everything.' Yet, with improvised performance, it can never be recreated. In his renewal of the Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite No.3, Selaocoe begins to sing, reminiscent of when he was practicing the Sarabande, and his mother began to sing a counter-melody. This is where Selaocoe is bringing classical music to the 21st century, as Toks Dada, head of Classical Music at the Southbank Centre, argues in Songlines: 'he blends traditional Western classical music with music from his own South African heritage.'
In Selaocoe's hands, even the cello itself is transformed, which is evident from the very beginning of Selaocoe's journey with the instrument. Selaocoe explained in The Strad:
"In the township, whatever the occasion was, I'd be there playing the cello. People didn't think of me as a classical cellist, or even as a cellist at all. I was just the kid who could play that thing. They'd bring me along and I'd have to make something work. It's just a box, after all. We didn't grow up with classical music, so playing the cello was just another way of joining in with the culture we did have."
Thus, there are no limits to what the cello can be; it becomes a shape-shifter. This is evident throughout the album. In 'Zawose (for Hukwe Zawose)', the cello is a Tanzanian one-string zeze, its sound airy and high. This is a gesture toward the musician Hukwe Zawose and the people of Tanzania 'for playing an important role in South Africa's victory over the oppressive regime of apartheid,' Selaocoe writes in a social media post. He continues: 'many of our forefathers made towns like Morogoro their home, not to mention the liberation efforts developed there.' The inspiration came from Zawose's 'Mateso' (suffering), in which the musician expresses how fortunate Tanzanian people are in comparison to their oppressed South African neighbours, and how Tanzania will always welcome them. Thus, his use of cello becomes a voice of this history. In Selaocoe's hands, the cello also becomes multi-phonic. Throughout the album, Selaocoe rethinks and redefines the boundaries and possibilities of cello, weaving together a plethora of genres and styles. As he puts it in Alternative Classical: he is 'connecting threads between Baroque music and South African hymnal song that took his sound world through its colonial past.' His cello transforms in 'Lerato / Love' to offer percussive 'beat on Bibles', as the artist puts it. Then, 'Seipone / Mirror' is just voice and cello. His improvisation weaves together impassioned singing, patterns of harmonics, ponticello bowing, and plucked percussion. Again it changes in 'Ka Bohaleng / On the Sharp Side': the title comes from the Sesotho expression that says 'a woman holds a knife on the sharp side.' In it, Selaocoe nods to the sound of the uhadi (a Xhosa musical bow) played by musician Madosini, who for Selaocoe is 'one of the last libraries of traditional music in South Africa.' The result of this weaving is a celebration of an environment which, as Selaocoe says, allows a 'deep religious and cultural practice [...] while learning Bach cello suites and hearing the same melodies [he] practised through African voices of family who interpret the music in the way which they hear it.' Selaocoe brings this singing from his home to his craft, another aspect that pushes the boundaries of what we understood to be classical music. For Selaocoe, everything originates in song, as he told the New York Times: 'The voice does things my body cannot imagine, but my musicality can.' In 'Where is Home (Hae Ke Kae)', the artist combines traditional South African ceremonial singing, Xhosa throat singing and umngqokolo, a form of South African overtone singing. His riveting voice flows through the entire album. What Selaocoe offers us through this interweaving, as he puts it, is a route to feel how 'there are things that go beyond language, the things that are just part of the human instinct.' The album asks us where home is. For Selaocoe, one aspect of this journey home is connecting to the past, which is deeply rooted in his musical purpose, which he sees in the Zulu word 'sithunyiwe'. It means 'we have been sent by the ancestors.' So if 'the future is in the past,' the artist now suggests that home is the place that empowers you, as he explains on the album's release by Warner Classics. Selaocoe believes the cello has helped him on this journey: 'I've learned to find my different homes through the cello.' He added: 'It can be an ideology, within artistic practice, or the people I surround myself with.' Selaocoe combines his voice with multi-phonics and his bowing techniques. They blend artist and instrument into one, just as he bonds the European and African traditions that have shaped him. They become a new seamless sound of where Selaocoe has found his home. His music allows us to find our homes too.