Abel Selaocoe: Where Is Home review – captivating, complex and compelling

Nobody else could have made this recording. Abel Selaocoe grew up in a township in Johannesburg; grit and good fortune led him to cello studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Those who have seen him live, improvising and singing as he plays, know that he is now one of the most captivating performers the classical music world can lay a claim on. Other genres can claim him too, but part of what makes him so compelling is the way all those labels seem to dissolve in front of him.

Where Is Home, his debut CD, wanders through his musical life so far, with some unpredictable turns. There are songs drawing on old and new African musical traditions, some built upon complex but irresistible dance rhythms and underpinned by electric bass; these blur in and out of the European baroque music of Selaocoe’s studies. An 18th-century cello sonata by Giovanni Benedetto Platti stretches to accommodate improvised interludes, and has the west African kora lending a subtle afterglow to the accompaniment alongside its European cousin the theorbo. One moment Selaocoe is growling and beatboxing his way through a playful number hymning his young nephew; the next he is singing a gentle countermelody to a movement from a Bach cello suite, like his mother used to do when he practised at home.

Most haunting of all is the opening number, Selaocoe’s version of the hymn Ibuyile iAfrica, tenderly sung and played in close harmony; from a recording studio far, far away, Yo-Yo Ma, one of Selaocoe’s heroes, adds an ethereal cello track over the top. In the UK studio Selaocoe has quite a team assembled, including several colleagues from the Manchester Collective: this may be a portrait recording, but it’s very much a collaboration. All that’s missing is the sense of spontaneity one would get from being with Selaocoe in the hall.

This week’s other pick

Also makes a good shot at pinning down the essence of a live experience. The Playhouse Sessions, on Rubicon, again sees the violinist Bjarte Eike and his Barokksolistene ensemble recreating the anarchic atmosphere of after-hours musical sessions in Restoration pub backrooms. This time the mix of exhilarating folk music and stylishly appropriated Purcell is loosely themed around A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The team has expanded to include two women, one of whom, Berit Norbakken, sings an understated version of Music for a While with bassist Johannes Lundberg that wouldn’t be out of place in a jazz club.