Abel Selaocoe Finds a Home in Improvisation

At St John’s, Selaocoe dreamed of a move to Europe, and his classmates romanticized the continent as “the mecca of classical music, of musical expression,” he said. After studying with the teacher Michael Masote, who was one of the most influential voices in South African classical music, Selaocoe eventually took the leap in 2010, when he enrolled at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester at 18.

Despite his classical training in the cello, everything stems from singing for Selaocoe. “The voice does things my body cannot imagine, but my musicality can,” he said over lunch near his home in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, a suburb south of Manchester.

Selaocoe learned to sing the same way one might pick up a language in childhood: “by seeing adults do it and copying them.” Growing up, his parents, a domestic worker and a mechanic, taught him cultural ceremonies and church. About six years ago, a friend gave Selaocoe a grounding in umngqokolo, a form of South African overtone singing, he said, which added a new dimension to the musician’s already charismatic performances.

His onstage request at Bridgewater Hall for the audience to join in the performance is typical of Selaocoe’s belief in the connective power of the voice. In rehearsals for a 2018 Manchester Collective show, “Sirocco,” Selaocoe “would sing things to demonstrate to other ensemble members,” Adam Szabo, the chief executive of the group, said in a recent phone interview. “We pushed him to do it in the show, something he hadn’t done much before at all.” Now, Szabo said, he’s refined that singing in his practice, “which is this amazing melting pot of different influences.”

Over lunch, Selaocoe returned frequently to idea that “singing is so universal.” But that universality has its limits. For the music journalist and author Ansell, “the song is universal, the fact that people sing is universal, but in fact the language, the meaning, the discourse of that song, isn’t.”

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