Program Notes for “Sirocco” by Philip Carlsen

Notes on the Program by Philip Carlsen


Si-roc-co: A “hot dust-laden wind from the Libyan deserts that blows on the northern Mediterranean coast.” Si-roc-co: A musical wind blowing across the north Atlantic from Manchester, England, bearing tantalizing scents from South Africa, Mali, Denmark, and eighteenth-century Vienna, a visionary collaboration between violinist Rakhi Singh, cellist Abel Selaocoe, and their four bandmates.

Rakhi Singh, the daughter of an Indian father and English mother, is Artistic Director and principal violinist of the Manchester Collective, the musical organization she co-founded in 2015. Its driving mission has been to transform the traditional concert by exploring unexpected juxtapositions of normally separate musical genres and by fostering project-based partnerships between performers and composers. Behind the scenes is a supportive staff of producers, sound engineers, dancers, filmmakers, stage and lighting designers. As Manchester Collective affirms on its website, “Collaboration is in our DNA.”

Abel Selaocoe, brought in by the collective as guest director and composer for Sirocco along with his trio Chesaba, is also based in Manchester. Originally from South Africa, he was born and raised in Sebokeng, one of the townships to the south of Johannesburg. His multi-faceted talents were apparent early on. Inspired and encouraged by his older brother Sammy, who had taken up the bassoon, Abel started cello lessons at ACOSA, the African Cultural Organisation of South Africa. With the support of scholarships that he won while a high school student at Johannesburg’s St. John’s College, he auditioned and was accepted at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. He soon established himself as one of the standout students at RNCM, eventually winning the school’s gold medal for exceptional performance.

Alongside his devotion to the solos, concertos, and chamber music of the standard cello repertoire, he has always wanted to push himself and his instrument in new directions. For example, he imitates African instruments such as the wata, a one-stringed bowed fiddle from Eritrea that sounds to Abel’s ears like a whistle or flute. He explores turning the cello into a percussion instrument, striking the strings with fingers or bow, or plucking them vigorously, calling to mind the ancient ancestor of all stringed instruments, the hunter’s bow. Like many traditional African musicians, he also sings as he plays, engaging in dialogue with his instrument or using it to provide a repetitive rhythmic backdrop. Abel’s vocal technique draws on the throat-singing traditions of South Africa’s Xhosa people, producing powerful bass notes and prominent shifting overtones.

It was at RNCM that Abel first met and started playing with Sidiki Dembele, the man who later became his partner in Chesaba along with electric bassist Alan Keary. Sidiki is from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. Born to music, he comes from a family of griots, singers from the Manding people of Mali who accompanied themselves on the 21-stringed kora while recounting the history and genealogies of the village or offering praise songs to the elders. Sidiki’s principal instrument is djembe, the single-headed drum well known to anyone who has studied African drumming or dance. He also plays calabash, the large hollow shell of the fruit of the calabash tree. Different kinds of strokes on these instruments produce a variety of sounds. The third instrument with him on stage is the ngoni, a harp-lute similar to the kora.

The six performers of Sirocco—also including Rakhi’s sister Simmy on violin and Christine Anderson on viola—bring their diverse backgrounds together in a commitment to learning from one another, blurring the boundaries between genres, as well as illuminating their common threads. Abel observes that Franz Josef Haydn’s harmonic language had taken hold in South Africa many generations back with the arrival of European colonists and missionaries, so it was already familiar to him from the choral singing he grew up with. He draws attention to that connection (and harkens back to his homeland) by placing a serene adagio from one of Haydn’s string quartets next to the sublime South African hymn “Ibuyile I’Africa” (“Africa is Back”). He finds African-inspired grooves in the Danish String Quartet’s arrangement of the folk song “O Fredrik, O Fredrik,” and reinforces that connection by adding Sidiki’s drumming to the mix. Abel’s own compositions also pull many of these threads together.

The other quartet pieces on the program include, again by way of the Danish String Quartet, arrangements of wedding folk songs from the village of Sønderho in western Denmark. The music of another Dane, the “Preludes for String Quartet” by Hans Abrahamsen, offers a stark contrast: bracing, abstract, frequently dissonant, but with a striking clarity of rhythm. Rakhi and Simmy return to the folk music theme with a violin duo by Luciano Berio. Called “Aldo,” in honor of one of Berio’s friends, the piece is a dreamy, glistening arrangement of an old Sicilian love song called “E si fussi pisci” (“And if I Were a Fish”).

There is plenty of improvisation in this program, the give and take of highly attuned players responding in the moment to the spontaneous spinning out of their musical conversation. For some pieces they might improvise a meditative introduction, as if using the instruments to find their way into the score’s starting notes rather than beginning from silence. We certainly hear this in “Ka Bohaleng,” the concert’s virtuosic showstopper. It’s filled with Africana: the call and response of solo and chorus, the energetic, infectious rhythmic groove, the singing, and the way Abel uses his cello to evoke the percussive sound of African plucked string instruments. The spirit of “Ka Bohaleng” and the concert as a whole is well summed up by Simmy Singh: “Sirocco is a testament to what happens when you bring worlds together and you work together. It made me proud of what I do. It made me realize that this is the meaning of music—it’s bringing joy to people.”


Sirocco performs on Friday, April 5 at 7 PM at the State Theatre in Portland.