The Fierce Cello: Abel Selaocoe at The Hub

Abel Selaocoe, Edinburgh International Festival. Image © Ben Bonouvrier
Abel Selaocoe, Edinburgh International Festival. Image © Ben Bonouvrier

Abel Selaocoe

From: 22 Aug 2023

The Hub
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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I was idly channel-hopping on my car radio last year when I alighted on BBC Radio Three’s Music Planet programme and found myself captivated by an Abel Selaocoe piece: an energetic presence, sonically exploratory, with vocals that bring the South African earth. A performance on BBC’s Later with Jools Holland served only to confirm that Selaocoe, his voice and his ‘cello, are a fearless force.

Born and raised near Johannesburg, Selaocoe moved to the UK aged 18, when he gained a place at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music in 2010. Artist in Residence at London’s Southbank Centre for 2022/23, he has impressed at Proms performances with the BBC National Wales Orchestra and his Chesaba trio, garnered widespread industry recognition and numerous awards.

Tonight saw the ‘cellist and composer walk on The Hub’s stage* to embracing applause, and maybe some apprehension – for many, such as me, it would be the first time seeing an artist whose debut album was released less than a year ago: could a man, an instrument and his voice alone sustain a captivating performance over a period of time?

Image David White
Image David White

Well Selaocoe’s personal charisma certainly helps: he has a commanding, warm presence, in his light-catching lilac suit – genuine, relaxed and smiling. His passion for music’s wildest sonic possibilities was obvious from the start, and the opening number was a stall-setter for many of the dazzling tricks he delights in: vigorous pizzicato chording, roller-coastering melodies, explosively-aspirated rhythms, sawed strings spinning aurora-like overtones, Khoisan tongue-clicks, and diving sub-octave throat-singing. It’s all quite dizzying from the off – the audience is rapt, and the loose horsehairs already flailing from his bow.

But this dazzlement is counterbalanced by his singing voice, which alongside the forthright directness brings a softly soulful, lyrical tenderness (sometimes switching adroitly from one to the other mid-song). Particularly with traditional tunes from his native South Africa – which reinforce the Africa-ness of the performance – it really does seem you are brought closer to that vast continent, or that it is brought to you…

He’s also fully invested in the more familiar beauties of music-making – intuitively-perfect intonation, bringing out the full sweetness and sonority from his instrument, rising in steps with dextrous scales, and vigorous bowing, coaxing notes to teeter at an exquisite, sensual near-silent altitude before plunging back headlong into a breathtaking, riotous swell of rapid-fire salvos.

An imaginative re-working of a portion of J S Bach’s Cello Suites sees the entire audience singing a sustained C-natural as a drone, over which Selaocoe playfully dances the familiar melodies, with a sweetly-expressive, natural articulation.

In some of his own compositions (which arguably they all become), Selaocoe sets up complex repeated parts using a digital loop pedal, rubbing the ‘cello and breathing by its pickup to set up rhythmic grunts and spacey harmonies. A musical bridge-builder, he invokes jazz and classical spirits in equal measure as well as an almost collage-like art sensibility, as the pieces build, layer, and these are swapped and replaced.

But always musical. I don’t think since the late (American electronic-cellist) Arthur Russell has there been someone who can bring out the instrument’s possibilities in such a way, and then proceed to bring that into the mainstream classical oeuvre so successfully and with such winning personality.

*A quick word about The Hub: now the Festival’s home-base, the former Highland Tolbooth Kirk houses as agreeable a performance space as you can find – relaxed ambience, open seating (sofas even) space for drinks (in proper glasses), and subtle all-round sound reinforcement.

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