Abel Selaocoe on his musical journey

By Abel Selaocoe

This story was published by International Arts Manager under the name "Brush Strokes"

My parents were musical in a traditional African sense as they were born with a powerful intuition to communicate through the voice, South Africa is a nation of song after all! I grew up in a small township outside Johannesburg called Sebokeng, when my elder brother started to go for music lessons at an outreach programme in Soweto, my curiosity in the cello was piqued. I thought he was so cool. I was 11 when I got a chance to try the cello for the first time.

There was a handful of cellos in the school as we lacked resources, so we all had to share the same instrument. I only had access to it at the weekend, so all week long my brother would help me prepare, gathering information on how the cello works and drawing diagrammes for me to learn on paper. I learned the physicality of playing – without an instrument to hand – by using a broom as an imaginary bow to get the right hold.

I studied a lot by ear, mostly from recording classical radio stations on cassette tape and searching for videos of all the greatest cellists. Yo-Yo Ma particularly struck me as he is so versatile and open-minded – with a talent to collaborate with musicians from other genres which inspired me to become a part of a more improvisational world.

I completely fell in love with CD’s by great musicians such as Bobby McFerrin and bassist Edgar Meyer. Meyer’s playing and ideas reflect the world that we live in, which as an artist is essential. He opens the doors of classical music to everybody and connects threads between worlds we imagine as far apart.

My life changed forever when I was awarded a music scholarship to St John’s College, one of the best schools in South Africa. My teacher Kutlwano Masote studied at the Yehudi Menuhin Academy in Switzerland and inspired me with stories about life far away from home, his experiences opened up a whole new perspective for me. My lessons with Masote were the origin of a dream to study abroad.

I began to have a special connection with the UK through Aldeburgh as part of the Britten Pears Young Artist Programme. I decided to apply for a place at various music colleges around the UK and eventually gained a scholarship to attend the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where I was tutored by world-renowned cellist Hannah Roberts.

It was in Manchester that I met Adam Szabo, who went on to cofound Manchester Collective, together with Rakhi Singh. The Collective have a new way of making music: they perform in unusual venues as well as big concert halls, and play to people who don’t necessarily know a lot about classical music, but who are thrilled and excited by the shows they see. Manchester Collective made its debut at Kings Place in London on 30 May with a show called Sirocco, which tours to Manchester and Liverpool next week.

As guest director of Sirocco, I worked with Rakhi to come up with a programme that reflects my own path and beliefs about music. In Sirocco, we connect folk traditions of the world through the idea of a wind that travels from the Sahara across Southern Europe. Our upcoming concerts in Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and London include an amazing mix of music by Giovanni Sollima, William Lawes, Ravel, Haydn and Stravinsky, as well as folk music from Africa and Norway.

In this programme I’m also inspired by my father who is a charismatic storyteller. He knows the ending before the beginning, carefully sculpting the story with improvised humour and a diverse range of characters. I want to use the essence of my African culture to enhance the threads that connect me to Europe, celebrating and learning about cultures and finding common and beautiful contrasts between them. Inspired by folk songs which have passed down through the generations, both in Europe and Africa, the programme is a history of colliding cultures of African and European spiritual and secular music. It is a coming together of people with solidarity and pride in diversity.