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‘I’m excited to show the different sides of myself’

Close up photo of Abel Selaocoe playing his cello
5 Feb 2024
5 min read

Trailblazing cellist Abel Selaocoe will share music from around the world during his 
Barbican Artist Spotlight residency.

‘I want people to feel like they are having a communal experience,’ says South African cellist Abel Selaocoe, whose new year starts with three concerts here. ‘And they will leave with a feeling like you are in resonance with everything that's around you, rather than in solitude.’

Renowned for moving seamlessly across multiple genres, from performances with beatboxers to the London Symphony Orchestra, Selaocoe says his Barbican Artist Spotlight residency will allow him the room to share the breadth of his musical interests.

‘It's such a beautiful thing to be allowed to take space to show all the facets of who you are,’ he tells us. ‘How often do artists get that kind of privilege? It’s a beautiful opportunity to be myself. I'm excited to show all the different sides of myself.'

Born in Sebokeng township outside Johannesburg, Selaocoe completed his International Artist Diploma at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. He has a special interest in curating recital programmes that highlight the links between Western and non-Western musical traditions, and says this comes from his early years.

‘For me, it's almost not even a blending of styles. We’re aiming to turn the Barbican into an environment that breathes and lives this idea very naturally. Where I come from in South Africa, none of us felt as if we were blending anything. When I started playing the cello in the township, none of us felt that we were trying to infuse [musical styles]. We were just doing things as we see them. If you look at an instrument, it’s like a tool. So for me this is about creating an environment where music lives and nobody bats an eyelid. It's my happiest place.’

The first concert of 2024 sees him contrast minimalist composer Terry Riley’s In C with improvised and Baroque works, all performed on African string instruments.

‘This is a really beautiful programme. I thought I would put together music that is rhythmic and full of vitality, but also put individual personalities in the space. Every time we hear of music that is minimalist, we put it in its own category, but these rhythms feel innately African. So I started to wonder what we can do with them. I'm really excited to play In C on different African instruments, and on violin, cello, viola, bass and also [Baroque lute-like instrument] theorbo, which is super exciting.’

From In C, the musicians will delve into Baroque music, exploring its lyricism. ‘It may not seem like they relate, but they do,’ says Selaocoe.

‘The idea of what they call in Baroque music recitative – telling a story in a lyrical way – exists in so much of African culture. We're looking to explore music that goes into the world of Baroque, but also in the world of African music.’

Then in February, he joins Britten Sinfonia for a powerful performance of works by Tavener, Beethoven and Bartók in Milton Court Concert Hall.

‘The Taverner is extremely different from this world of African music. But it’s a celebration of religion, of sending a message to the masses for peace or for love. It will be a beautiful experience to play a character with this music – someone who has come to bring a message of peace and love. As a musician it excites me to play characters that are so different from what I've ever done before, and from an aspect of cello playing, as they say, in jazz music, it's a real roast.’

Opening up music to different audiences is a passion of Selaocoe’s. He says: ‘People need to see an examples of themselves in their environment, in order to feel comfortable to enter that environment. I want to be a symbol of that I want to be a symbol of that fact that everyone is welcome into my space, into the concert hall, or the Barbican, or any other venue; they should be comfortable. It’s important that people know they can be themselves in that space. And that they will be completely welcome and completely allowed.’

Words by James Drury

Abel Selaocoe 21 Jan, 15 Feb, 26 March


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