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Abel Selaocoe & BBC Singers

At one point during last night’s concert with the BBC Singers at Milton Court, the cellist Abel Selaocoe appeared to attach something to his instrument’s bridge that enabled him to make it sound alternately like a kora and a kalimba, and sometimes like a combination of the two. At another juncture he turned it sideways, tapping its back with one hand and its shoulder with the other, creating a groove that swung the whole 25-voice choir. He slapped it, sawed at it, and waved it at the audience, but he also did things that Rostropovich, Casals or du Pré would have recognised and applauded.

He sang a great deal, too, delivering songs in, I think, Sesotho, Zulu and Xhosa in a variety of voices that ranged from a form of guttural sub-bass throat-singing to a silvery whisper via a gentle tenor croon suited to lullabies. And he danced a little, while getting the choir and then the audience to clap and sing along.

Born 31 years ago in a Johannesburg township, Selaocoe — whose name is pronounced Sa-LAU-chay — has made his way via Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music to the concert platforms of the world, collaborating en route with the likes of Famoudou Don Moye, the great percussionist with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the saxophonist Tim Garland and the kora player Seckou Keita. As a gifted improviser, it may be that, with the American cellist Tomeka Reid, he is capable of building on the legacy bequeathed to the instrument by the late Abdul Wadud. Last night showed that Selaocoe intends to bring not only his instrumental gift but his own music to the audiences he will meet as his fame grows.

The concert combined his pieces, collectively titled “Music of African Twilight”, with a selection of 11 (of 15) movements from Sergey Rachmaninov’s “All Night Vigil (Vespers)”, a piece for unaccompanied choir written and first performed in Moscow in 1915, during the early stages of the First World War, and here delivered under the baton of Sofi Jeannin, the BBC Singers’ chief conductor. I went along expecting Selaocoe to be contributing interludes between the choral pieces, but that was not the case. The two alternating elements were given equal time and weight throughout.

Rachmaninov’s take on the Russian Orthodox liturgy was sublime, but so was Selaocoe’s evocation of another world, his writing for the choir a full-bodied support to his own singing and playing. On the candelit Milton Court stage, one moment we were under the dome of a cathedral, the next under open African skies. The concert was in no sense an attempt at a fusion of two cultures. It wasn’t even the sort of juxtaposition of two idioms intended to provoke new thoughts, new possibilities. It just was, and when the candles were finally dimmed and the light faded, that seemed enough.

* The concert was recorded by the BBC and will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Tuesday 23 May at 7.30pm, available for 30 days thereafter on BBC Sounds. Abel Selaocoe’s debut album, Where Is Home (Hae Ke Kae), is out now on Warner Classics.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Paul Crowe #

    Excellent review, Richard. “Stranded” in Dublin, I’ll catch it on the Beeb.

    May 25, 2023

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