Meet Abel Selaocoe, South African cellist, and the Southbank Centre’s newest artist in residence

4 October 2022, 16:19 | Updated: 18 September 2023, 12:03

Abel Selaocoe plays original cello work 'Ka Bohaleng' at Southbank Centre

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

We talk to genre-bending cellist Abel Selaocoe at London’s Southbank Centre, as he performs two exclusive new tracks from his new album.

The 30-year-old cellist Abel Selaocoe released his debut album, Where Is Home (Hae Ke Kae), at the end of last month with Warner Classics.

Classic FM met the cellist on stage at the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre in London ahead of his album launch, to film two exclusive solo performances in an atmospherically empty concert hall.

Across the cello virtuoso’s 16-track album, Selaocoe demonstrates his prowess for classical cello, alongside impressive improvisatory skills, and a powerful mastery of umngqokolo, a form of South African overtone singing.

‘Ka Bohaleng’ (which translates to ‘On the Sharp Side’) is track 14 of Selaocoe’s album, and heavily features this form of traditional singing. Watch Selaocoe’s exclusive live performance of the piece for Classic FM above.

Abel Selaocoe plays cello for Classic FM on stage at the Southbank Centre in London
Abel Selaocoe plays cello for Classic FM on stage at the Southbank Centre in London. Picture: Classic FM

‘I’ve had to learn to allow classical music and my culture to live in one space’

With his debut album title, Where Is Home (Hae Ke Kae), written in both English and Sesotho, Selaocoe asks an important question – seemingly both to himself, and to the listening audience.

“The point of asking the question, Where is Home, is not actually to answer it, rather it is being in the search for it,” Selaocoe told Classic FM.

Selaocoe was born in a township, just south of Johannesburg in South Africa. Learning the cello through the non-profit, the African Cultural Organisation of South Africa, the promising young musician would go on to win a place at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music in 2010, moving to the UK at the age of 18.

Describing the move as “overwhelming”, Selaocoe has gone from strength to strength as a UK-based performer, from winning the prestigious Royal Overseas League Arts Overseas Award in 2017, to being named as the Southbank Centre’s Artist in Residence for 2022/23.

Read more: The 11 most relaxing pieces of classical music written for the cello

Abel Selaocoe’s debut album released on 23 September 2022
Abel Selaocoe’s debut album released on 23 September 2022. Picture: Warner Classics

As for where ‘home’ is for the young artist, he says, “Home is not really just a geographical space, it’s also a place that nurtures you, that empowers you, and also challenges you.

“Home is a place we find refuge in, and I use the word refuge because there’s such a stigma around that word. It’s really important that everybody understands that there is a universal concept to seek refuge; a place where we can feel empowered, nurtured and feel that we can progress our talents.

“I want these qualities to be reflected for whoever’s listening to this music.”

Describing music as something that’s imprinted in his DNA, Selaocoe is clear to note that while he’s been a classical musician since he was very young he is also an “African man that grew up in a very deep culture.

“I love both of these parts of me, and I merged them so they became one thing. I’ve had to learn to allow classical music and my culture to live in one space rather than separate them.”

An example of this coexistence is demonstrated in Selaocoe’s performance of the ‘Sarabande’ from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No.3 in C major. Watch below.

Abel Selaocoe plays 'Sarabande' from Bach's Cello Suite No.3 at Southbank Centre

‘It’s amazing to have Yo-Yo Ma on my album’

“Throughout the album,” Selaocoe tells Classic FM, “the audience is kind of taken on a journey where their sonic space is questioned. They have to change the way they listen to each track, because each work is extremely different.”

The genres of music on Where is Home (Hae Ke Kae) range from Baroque, to African, to contemporary, and a mix of the above, and Selaocoe holds the audience’s hand, guiding the listeners through each of these varied sonic spaces on his search for ‘home’.

Selaocoe collaborates with a handful of artists throughout the album, including American virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“It’s amazing to have him on the album,” Selaocoe smiled as he told Classic FM about working with the legendary cellist. “But the real reason I chose to record with [Ma] above anyone else, was to play with somebody who also makes many different cultural spaces their musical home”.

Ma, like Selaocoe, regularly performs across a number of music genres, from folk and bluegrass, to traditional Chinese melodies, alongside his classical output. Writing on Twitter, Ma said it had been an ‘honour’ to collaborate with the young South African cellist.

Read more: Yo-Yo Ma explains how Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 can help rebuild after tragedy

Abel Selaocoe & Yo-Yo Ma record Ibuyile I'Africa / Africa is Back

Selaocoe’s appointment as a 2022/23 Artist in Residence at the Southbank Centre was announced in April earlier this year, alongside British violinist Daniel Pioro, young British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson and collaborative arts organisation, Manchester Collective.

A Manchester resident himself, having stayed in the city post his studies at the RNCM, Selaocoe has a long history of collaborating with the ground-breaking collective. In April earlier this year, the ensemble and cellist brought their collaborative show, The Oracle – a musical journey that spans continents and generations, past and future. – to the Southbank Centre.

Selaocoe cites the Southbank’s penchant for platforming a variety of genres across the arts as one of the reasons he is excited to be an Artist in Residence this season.

“Classical music is beginning to live within spaces that it didn't before,” Selaocoe told Classic FM. “It’s living with other genres, and it’s being performed in bars and clubs, as well as concert halls.

“The Southbank Centre has a reputation of bringing an incredible combination of artists to its stages. I mean, if we could hear all the sounds of the people that come through here, the diversity is kind of incredible.

“It’s amazing that this venue has the important understanding that all these different genres and artforms can live in one space.”

You can hear Abel Selaocoe in concert at the Southbank Centre on Saturday 5 November 2022.