Music

Firebrand cellist Abel Selaocoe: 'Classical music is about telling a great story'

The African cellist, composer and singer is using jazz music to connect us all

Abel Selaocoe resting his chin on clasped hands

Image: Christina Ebenezer

The world of classical music can be inaccessible. Instruments are difficult to learn, lessons are expensive, and it is arguably less immediate than pop or rock. But cellist, composer and singer Abel Selaocoe welcomes even the most cynical audiences with a warm, majestic grin.  

On his records and in concert, he’ll play Bach alongside African folk music. His own compositions draw boldly from both traditions, and a childlike wonder shines through both on stage and in conversation. 

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

“For a very long time,” he says, “I think people couldn’t find the link between classical music and other worlds. If you listen to jazz music, it has always been a connector of cultures. You’ve got indigenous people from South America playing traditional music and jumping into jazz, South Africans jumping from that tradition into jazz, and I feel like now is the opportunity for classical music to do the same.” 

Abel Selaocoe doesn’t just play a wide range of music, he gets the audience to join in. But you don’t need specialist training to do songs justice. Even if your singing has never progressed past Parklife or Mr Brightside in sticky-floored karaoke clubs, you can follow Selaocoe’s gentle conducting and help bring his compositions to life. 

As well as winning several awards this year, Selaocoe is the current Artist in Association with both the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Singers. 

I first saw Selaocoe with the BBC Singers at the Barbican, London without knowing who he was – I had never seen the famous Singers before and was intrigued by an evening where “Rachmaninov’s sacred All-Night Vigil meets African musical traditions”. I saw him again the following night supporting the experimental music and poetry of Moor Mother. He was solo, bowing the cello, plucking it like a guitar, and smacking it to imitate drums in various ways. 

One of the key things that marks Selaocoe out is his resourcefulness – he expertly moulds himself and his practice to suit the circumstances. He learned this growing up in Sebokeng, a township in South Africa. “It was almost mandatory from our parents’ perspective to dip into other cultures or play with children from other places,” he says. “This creates an opportunity for you and the collaborator to display your differences, but to also display what makes you the same.” 

This experience is critical to Selaocoe’s knack for audience participation, his inventive ways of playing the cello, and his ability to play by himself as well as he can with a choir or full orchestra. “Sometimes I would hear somebody say something in Zulu or Sotho that would sound super rhythmic,” he says. “I would try to play the rhythm of the speech and the sentence, and then I’d start making rhythm from that.” 

Selaocoe released his latest single, Voices of Bantu, on 6 October. Just as many electronic music and hip-hop producers sample older records for their songs, Selaocoe incorporates Tsohle Tsohle, a South African traditional hymn, and Les Voix Humaines, a piece by 17th century baroque composer
Marin Marais. 

When you press play on Voices of Bantu you’ll hear Selaocoe’s piercing voice and solo cello. Again, he switches between bowed, drawn-out chords, playing the instrument like an acoustic guitar and flurrying melodies.  

“What was clearly important was this idea of being able to sing,” he says. “The part that I sang in an
African style could also be accompanied by a baroque style. And then I don’t have to do much more to display African culture because I’ve already done the voice that can fit into both worlds. Keeping things simple is also very respectful for the clarity of the two worlds.” 

I had never heard of Marin Marais before listening to Voices of Bantu, nor do I have much knowledge in South African traditional hymnal music. But the way Abel Selaocoe uses both of these reminds me of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which takes many of its lyrics from Poland’s traditional folk and hymnal music and was one of the last century’s most famous classical compositions. 

“To help people understand classical music you have to present it in a different way,” he says. 

“If I have to play a Bach fugue, that’s deep and needs a lot of intentional listening. I have to programme that next to other pieces that might make it more digestible. Classical music is incredible within itself, but you need to not make people feel like they needed to go to school for it. 

“It’s about being able to tell a story in a great way. It doesn’t only start at the beginning or the middle or the end. It can be absurd. I want to introduce people who love classical music to my culture, African music, but also people who love African music to classical music; and to show them that it is normal to find that connecting.  

“That’s a really lovely thing, and an attitude to have towards most things in life.” 

Where Is Home (Hae Ke Kae) is out now on Warner Classics.

Abel Selaocoe is touring the UK from 30 October to 5 November, and will perform his Four Spirits concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, London, on 16 November.

Cian Kinsella is a member of Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
'When I was mentally ill, I could only listen to hard techno': Why is music so important to us?
Music

'When I was mentally ill, I could only listen to hard techno': Why is music so important to us?

Jingoism of Rule, Britannia! has long felt shameful. Is it finally time for BBC Proms to axe it?
A 1990s BBC Proms in the Park concert
Music

Jingoism of Rule, Britannia! has long felt shameful. Is it finally time for BBC Proms to axe it?

Zayn Malik: 'I wanted to forge my own path, write my own story and see the world'
Exclusive

Zayn Malik: 'I wanted to forge my own path, write my own story and see the world'

Zayn Malik speaks on new music, home city Bradford and identity: 'I'm a very Northern man'
Music

Zayn Malik speaks on new music, home city Bradford and identity: 'I'm a very Northern man'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know