In that innocent time before the pandemic, I was at my dream concert. A brilliantly inventive cellist, Abel Selaocoe was playing music by another brilliantly inventive cellist/composer Giovanni Sollima.
It was October 2019 and I had arrived at the venue after a wander down memory lane in my childhood home town, Manchester. Nothing could have jolted me out of my nostalgia more quickly than the music that opened this performance of ‘Sirocco’ at the Royal Northern College of Music.
Lamentatio by Giovanni Sollima is exciting enough with its simultaneous vocals and ferocious rhythmic double stops but Abel’s interpretation, singing in Zulu, playing cello chords and moving seamlessly into a low-pitched throat-singing, is astonishing and yet it sounds as if it has always been a part of the piece. It’s received with rapturous applause from this friendly Manchester audience for Selaocoe, a graduate of RNCM. You can feel the wealth of support and appreciation from fellow alumni, staff and students. He tells us throughout the concert how grateful he is for the freedom to be creative that this college gave him: “I studied here, forever, they wouldn’t let me leave” he says!
How to follow the Sollima? With a piece by Lawes originally written for viols in the 1600s. It’s performed by three upper string players of Manchester Collective (Rakhi Singh, Simmy Singh and Ruth Gibson) who join Abel to make a string quartet. It is played with such exquisite and raw beauty, I have tears in my eyes already.
Then – can this get any better? Well yes, with an improvised African song from Selaocoe, with the superb playing of Alan Keary on bass guitar and Sidiki Dembéli on djembe and calabash. Together they form the band ‘Chesaba’. Their range of sounds is impressive as is their immaculate synchronicity. In collaboration with Manchester Collective they still have several African numbers up their sleeve, including a sublime arrangement of a song from the Ivory Coast. Shaka is sung by Sidiki, who begins with a gentle melody on the kamale ngoni (a West African harp) before an explosion of virtuoso djembe playing.
Initially, I had wondered how a programme that juxtaposes African songs, Danish folk melodies and music by Lawes, Purcell, Haydn, Stravinsky and Sollima would work. Abel Selaocoe guides us through the connections:
“Whatever the style or wherever the music is from, it is the rhythm that is the key that binds it”
Abel delves further into the links between the music in his programme by telling us a bit about growing up in his township in apartheid South Africa. He tells us how colonialism affected South African music, when missionaries taught their hymns and brought harmony to local vocal music. Abel and the Manchester Collective demonstrate the musical connection by pairing a Haydn quartet movement with a South African song, Ibuyile. This programming makes complete sense now: after an initial shiver of guilt at the thought of the British colonial past, I realise that Abel has absorbed these two worlds and is rewarding us with the result and a greater understanding of colliding cultures.
Enough of the history lesson and time to join in some of the rhythms, get up and dance: it has been difficult to keep still during the last few numbers.
Abel tells us he discovered a rhythm. Where? On the internet! He went to Sidiki to see if he knew it. Of course, he’s been playing it all his life! The rhythm and the name of the piece: Takamba from Mali.
For the last number, we need no persuading to dance along, singing and clapping with these delightful and brilliant musicians.
Playing to his ‘home crowd’ is obviously quite special for Abel, and he is keen to show his appreciation of his experience studying at RNCM, and to express his thanks in particular to his cello teacher, Hannah Roberts, who had encouraged him to explore his roots and find his musical identity.
And his advice for budding students is to be creative:
“Go wild whilst you can, before you have to pay the bills!”
It’s worth a try if this is the result!
Abel Selaocoe – Cello; Rakhi Singh – Violin; Simmy Singh – Violin; Ruth Gibson – Viola; Alan Keary – Electric Bass; Sidiki Dembélé – Calabash, Djembe and Kamale Ngoni.
‘Sirocco’ was created by Abel Selaocoe, Chesaba and Manchester Collective. Recorded and mixed by Jamie Birkett. Filmed at RNCM (Royal Northern College of Music) in October 2019.
They are back with a new tour ‘The Oracle‘ happening now:
31 March – Birkenhead – Future Yard
1 April – Saffron Walden – Saffron Hall
7 April – Nottingham – Lakeside Arts
8 April – Leeds – Howard Assembly Room
15 April – Manchester – Bridgewater Hall
20 April – York – Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall
22 April – Bristol – St George’s Bristol
24 April – London – Southbank Centre
1 May – Online – Free Broadcast