Selaelo Selota: Prodigal Son and Jazz Prodigy

The acclaimed Selaelo Selota is returning to Cape Town for the first time in 11 years 

I just spent half an hour chatting to Selaelo Selota whose name is as lyrical as his music is fluid. He sang to me! Really, he beat rhythms out on his cell phone. This is a man honoured with the first University of Cape Town (UCT) alumni award for contribution to South African music, a man with over a hundred thousand album sales, a man who seamlessly fuses sePedi traditions and traditional jazz.

His bottom line? "Music is a language that transforms all language”.

CTMag: Hello, it’s an honour. But how, please, do I pronounce your name?

Selaelo: “Se-lilo se-LOta”

CTMag: Are you excited about your gig at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival this weekend?

Selaelo: Yes. I’ve just been in rehearsal with my new band, and we’re very excited. I’ve been putting them into the music, and the whole approach of how I want to do the show. I’ll be playing Cape Town for the first time in 11 years.

CTMag: Tell us a bit about your latest album, “Lapeng Laka”.

Selaelo: It’s more like a prodigal son coming back home to his roots. This is my fifth album, and in all previous albums, I’ve always ventured out and used influences from other groups and other people around the world. This album is in the language of the Limpopo, sePedi . It’s like arriving home after being drawn to other cultures, because perceptions of what you thought of as inferior or uncivilised have changed.

CTMag: do you think that education, too, has helped you realise the beauty of your culture?

Selaelo: Yes. When you study, you are able to learn what others know, but studying also taught me the complexity and the expression in the music of my background.  At an academic level, the jazz time signatures are just what they are; when I venture into the music of my childhood, I find they’re beyond time and space.

CTMag: At 45, you’ve built your repertoire and your career for over almost 4 decades, yet wide public exposure came through the South African Music Awards (SAMA s) in 2001. Any idea why the media is fascinated with stories about ‘rags to riches’ and ‘overnight success’?

Selaelo: The majority of media (in Johannesburg) focus on some guy in Soweto going from being a highjacker to becoming a superstar. They use it as an example to say you can build your life. But the point of reference is wrong. People always use the point that I was in the goldmine for 3 years, but what counts is that I very much had a rural background and walked 12km to school barefoot. In high school it was 50km so they had to get me a bicycle.

CTMag: That’s quite a way. And you’ve come a long way musically, too. Your music mixes the traditional with the contemporary, blending jazz standards and music forms from the Limpopo area. Other local musicians like Simphiwe Dana and Thandiswa (Mazwai) have also used crossover elements. Did it come naturally?

Selaelo: Yes. My first four albums, they were always a job, a mission.  I had to work and think hard, but the latest album was conceptualised one day in two hours. It just clicked that what I was doing was natural to me. I wasn’t trying to get some very complex harmonies into a song. It just flowed out.

CTMag: Surely many years practise helped to enable this?

Selaelo: I think the fluidity of harmonic principles helped a lot, yes.

You grew up with in a rural village with traditional song and dance. Then you experienced more local and international music working in gold mines and in the service industry. How did formalized jazz studies contribute to this?

Selaelo: What I learned from jazz music was liberation. The freedom to express oneself in terms of improvisation. As much as it’s structured in terms of form, I find Jazz to be a free music, because a large part of jazz is rooted in improvisation. This goes beyond the formal structure. Jazz music has helped me recognise that certain jazz elements are naturally in traditional music. (he sings a few notes to demonstrate)

CTMag: Are you a “hero” at home? 

Selaelo: Well, recently I received a Limpopo municipality award - “Kwankwetla”. It’s recognition of being an international ambassador. After receiving it, you have to address the former recipients. “

CTMag: A South African honour. Is Cape Town “African”?

Selaelo: I think Cape Town is an African city, I think it is not integrated enough. Africa as it is, itself, has a lot of nationalities, historically. Different cities are differently integrated, Johannesburg is very much integrated.

CTMag: What’s the hardest part of being on the road?

Selaelo: I’m continuously working on my brand and my name. Being on the road means paying for a band out of my own pocket. That’s hard. But I love being on the road, I feel I should be able to make every place my home. Music is a language that transforms all language; it’s the biggest weapon and quality to have.

CTMag: Do you enjoy (playing) soccer?

Selaelo: I’m a king! A hardcore lover. I play it myself. I had to make a choice between soccer and music when I was 22 and playing first division.

CTMag: How did you choose?

Selaelo: I’d started playing guitar.  The last game I played, I hit my wrist right on the ball, and couldn’t play guitar for 3 weeks. I realised injuries are common in soccer, and the career span was up to 30 years old. I’d seen musicians in their 80s. So I knew it was music.

CTMag: The world knows you as an afro-jazz expert. Could you tell us some of your non-music interests?

Selaelo: I like watching theatre. I like just going out outdoors, waterfalls, into the wild, I like taking my children to the Kruger National Park, and playing sport with them. I’ve got a big yard, 4000m2, there’s a trampoline, and we play soccer.

CTMag: Does it further inspire you?

Selaelo: Before long, I realise I am running with some kind of a rhythm. Music has just become something that is part of my breath, part of my life, if I’m in Long Street, for example, and I’m between parked cars, I stand and listen to the songs coming from them, trying to match them into one song!

CTMag: We’re always interested in the person behind the composition. What do you like about yourself?

Selaelo: What I like about myself? I’m very excited, almost born into new life, for the mere fact of working with this album, which is culturally oriented. Somehow in the past I’ve leaned on the concept of freedom, that I be free to do what I want to do. But there was a lack of liberation -  doing something because you’re mentally, culturally, and spiritually liberated. This album liberated me. Knowing fully who I am, where I come from, as a fully fledged South African artist and citizen who has pride his home. And using t

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