Sirocco – Abel Selaocoe, Chesaba and Manchester Collective

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!

From RNCM Manchester, Abel Selaocoe, Chesaba and Manchester Collective with Sorocco.

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

Music and Ukraine

In four shocking weeks, scenes of devastation from the war in Ukraine have become the norm of our daily news. I check each morning, in the vain hope that it will somehow have stopped.

Amongst the terror and heartbreak, an occasional glimmer of beauty amongst the rubble comes to light. It seems that the power of music cannot be destroyed. The happiness on this child’s face shines out as she sings Let it go from ‘Frozen’. No wonder it has now been viewed millions of times around the world.

The news that this little girl, Amelia Anisovich, whose singing brought joy to those people sheltering with her in Kyiv, is not only safe in Poland but sang the Ukrainian national anthem in front of a stadium of thousands, was one heart-warming story.

Since the start of the war, I’ve watched Ukrainians singing their national anthem, on tv and social media: from the spontaneous response of a man being interviewed for a news report to the members of the Ukrainian parliament meeting in the first week of the invasion. It appears that the threat to their existence has strengthened feelings of Ukrainian identity and singing the anthem is symbolic of their resilient spirit of resistance.

The threat to their lives has led millions to flee but for those who have stayed, there is little comfort except perhaps from music. I can’t imagine that any musician expects to perform in a bomb shelter but here is violinist, Vera Lytovchenko doing just that.

It was very difficult to play and think about something that wasn’t war. But I decided I must do something. We have become a family in this cellar and when I played they cried. They forget about the war for some moments and think about something else.

Lytovchenko, Guardian News, 7 March 2022.

In solidarity with Ukrainians, violinists from around the world joined another violinist, Illia Bondarenko who is playing here from a bunker in Kyiv.

Musical statements of resistance have sprung up even in ruined cities. Here, cellist Denys Karachevtsev plays Bach amongst the destroyed buildings of Kharkiv with the aim of fundraising for humanitarian aid.

Around the world, musicians from many genres have organised concerts to raise funds for Ukraine and to show their fellow feeling through music. Here’s Endpin Project Cello Choir playing the Ukrainian national anthem (with fundraising links when opened in You Tube).

We can express a depth of feeling through music that is sometimes difficult to put into words. This final clip offers a heartfelt message of hope for the Ukrainian people, in words and music, from Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax.

The Female Voice of Afghanistan

January 2022

This month, my focus is on music from Afghanistan, a country whose citizens face a precarious and uncertain future. In my search for information about the fate of musicians there, I came across the following clip on You Tube: Freshta Farokhi, a singer from Bamyan province, in central Afghanistan sings in her native Harazi dialect accompanied here by musicians playing traditional instruments.

Three Bamyan folk songs performed by Freshta Farokhi with Nasir Sorosh on dambora, Asif Naveed on harmonium and Salman Hamdad on qaychak.

Freshta Farokhi is one of nine singers who took part in a virtual music festival: ‘The Female Voice of Afghanistan‘ which was broadcast on You Tube in October 2021. In this series of short films, each singer tells her own story and then, joined by musicians online from Europe, they perform together virtually, using green screen technology. I found it heartening to see the immediate connection made between these musicians from different parts of the world and to hear their musical collaboration across cultural genres. Each one of these singers had a desire to be free to perform music and these films gave them a platform to do so.

Freshta Farokhi is featured in the second of the films, talking about her life in Afghanistan, practising music secretly. We then see her online musical collaboration with Mahan Mirarab, an Iranian musician now living in Vienna, who speaks movingly about racial discrimination.

I’m convinced that we need more dialogue. People are disconnected from each other. It applies to music as well. Making music together means communication. The most important thing is listening. Then everything has meaning.

Mahan Mirarab, 2021

From the film ‘The Female Voice of Afghanistan’ part 2, accessed via You Tube, 16/01/22.

This series, devised and directed by ethnomusicologist Yalda Yazdani and Andreas Rochholl (after a similar project exploring Iranian female voices), gives an insight into the lives of these resilient women, who decided to make a career as singers. Their determination to pursue their dreams, in spite of the difficulties they faced, is clear, as is their love of their country and their culture. They may have left their country but their culture is with them wherever they go, to be cherished and shared.

Life in Afghanistan is risky. Especially for girls … A woman has to be strong and needs to fight. I fight with my voice.

Wajiha Rastagar

From the film ‘The Female Voice of Afghanistan’ part 3, accessed via You Tube, 16/01/22.

As we know, life changed course for the people of Afghanistan since filming in July – September 2021. Witness the dramatic turn of events towards the end of the first film, which can be accessed after the trailer. This series of short films makes compelling viewing and not least for the scenes of musicians playing and singing outside in the midst of stunning mountain landscapes. I was moved not just by these Afghan women’s distinctive singing voices but by what they had voiced about their country, their lives and their music. I was left wondering about these remarkable singers and what the future holds for them.