Afro Celt Sound System are a British musical group who fuse electronic music with traditional Gaelic and West African music. Afro Celt Sound System were formed in 1995 by producer-guitarist Simon Emmerson, and feature a wide range of guest artists. In 2003, they temporarily changed their name to Afrocelts before reverting to their original name.
When cultural historians and musicologists look back on this era, it might not be rock and roll and rap music that dominates their retrospective vision. It might be the burst of cross-cultural fertilization that took place in music as technology, global communication and economical trans-continental travel brought the sounds of the world together. Plugging into this development, Afro Celt Sound System executed a pan-global convergence that was so organic, you couldn’t understand why it wasn’t always this way.
By the time of their debut in 1996, cross-fertilization was already the musical vernacular of our era. But Afro Celt Sound System emerged from a profound realization of the connections between ancient and modern, the seeds of one planted in the fields of the other and then blown back on planetary winds, transformed. They weren’t dabbling, using ethnic sounds for color or exoticism. They were creating an electro-charged global fusion that promised a new musical relationship, one born from collaboration, drawing from ancient heritages wedded to modern electronics. The evidence is here on Capture, from the opening electro-African-Indian-aire of “Lagan” to the closing dervish of “Whirly 2.”
Afro Celt Sound System wasn’t supposed to last beyond one recording, let alone five CDs, (two of them Grammy-nominated), a remix album and this collection. They were an ad hoc group, one of many that got together in 1995 at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in the west of England. But the Afro Celts had something many of the other assemblages didn’t: a vision.
Initially, that vision was a merging of African and Celtic music, weaving the threads of griot melodies and Irish aires, djembe grooves and bodhran beats, Celtic harp melodies and kora cycles. It was all wired into the circuit boards of electronic beats and synthesizer atmospheres pushing the music to another level, while transporting audiences to a higher ground, especially at festivals where the Afro Celts are favorites. If you saw them live, you’d experience a band who start at joy and quickly morph into rapture. An Afro Celt Sound System performance is a celebration at the global village crossroads. They make you think that maybe the world really was all one.
Anatomic: concerned with anatomy, concerned with dissection, related to the structure of an organism.
In 2005 Afro Celt Sound System began their journey, pioneering an expressive musical path that fused world music and electronica. With each of their albums, they’ve delved deeper into sound and into themselves. From 2005 – 2015 their four albums and a remix collection have sold a staggering 1.2 million albums and contributed to the soundtrack of the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda.
Now, with Volume V: Anatomic, they’ve taken a profound trip into their hearts and souls and once again the Afro Celts have grown. This time six of the nine tracks began with members Martin Russell and James McNally collaborating in the studio, “with James playing the bodhran, and building from there,” Russell recalls, “so things had his rhythmic interpretation on them as a base.” From there the Afro Celt magic took over as each of the band members added their unique signatures in the group’s London studio. N’Faly Kouyate’s kora parts interwove with Simon Emmerson’s guitar and bouzouki hooks while a rhythm section combined live and programmed beats with world class dhol, tabla and talking drum, and McNally’s virtuosic multi-instrumentalism layered in whistle tunes and top line pipe melodies with keyboards and guitars. Finally, with all the pieces in place, the massive tapestry of sound was bound together and brought into focus by Russell and Mass’s keyboard and drum programming.
“The way we make music is by presenting an organic whole out of millions of minute parts,” says Simon Emmerson. “We’re very proud of this record.” It has, he observes, “more of a live feel. That gives the sound a lot more air and openness, and we programme around that. There’s as much drum programming as on the other albums, but it’s more sympathetic to what we’re playing.”
Of course, they can still make a fierce, inimitable groove, as the title track and ‘Dhol Dogs’ (which started as one of Mass’s breakbeat club tracks) demonstrate perfectly, but Anatomic also contains the most exquisite songs of the band’s career – like the delicate African colours of ‘Sene’ and O Lionaird’s caressingly lovely ‘Beautiful Rain’.
“I had it written before I went to bed. We got up early and recorded it,” O Lionaird remembers. “We laid down the vocal and basic rhythm track at my house, then they took it back and there was programming and some percussive elements that I thought were great. It’s complete.”
It’s the latest step in a groundbreaking journey. Back in 1995 the idea of bringing Celtic and African sounds together with electronic dance grooves seemed revolutionary. But to producer Simon Emmerson, who’d worked with Senegalese star Baaba Maal, among many others, ex-Pogue James McNally, producer, engineer and keyboard player Martin Russell, and Irish sean-nos singer Iarla O Lionaird it was a concept bursting with possibilities that they started to explore on their debut, Sound Magic.
“When we came together we were all speaking different languages and I felt we got lucky that so many people created magic,” recalls McNally. “After the first album worked, we had to figure out how we did it. That’s where we had to open the can of who we were and could we work together.”
Their third album, 2001’s Further in Time, was a turning point for the Afro Celts. Their global, danceable grooves had already won them a worldwide audience. But they’d also become strong, sophisticated songwriters, as they showed on the number one AAA hit ‘When You’re Falling’ with its Peter Gabriel guest vocal – which held at #1 on the US charts for weeks on end, and made their VH-1 TV debut with the imaginative video for the song.
With national TV appearances scheduled on Conan O’Brien and David Letterman, and a major tour of America lined up, the Afro Celts were set to go to the next level. Then the tragedy of 9/11 happened, and a world that had been rapidly opening up for the band suddenly shut down. The unforeseeably ironic content of the video (in part showing a person falling from the sky alongside a skyscraper) caused it to be pulled off the air at once by VH-1, and the song pulled from playlists across the US. Yet out of misfortune came a blessing.
“If we’d had the success that seemed likely,” Emmerson says, “we’d have been chasing our tails trying to write another radio hit and we’d never have made Seed.”
Seed took the band in a different, more transparent direction, where confident songwriting and sparkling acoustic playing moved above subtle programming. It built perfectly on all they’d done before.
Anatomic adds another storey to that edifice. It also continues the longstanding Afro Celt tradition of cultural collaboration, bringing in two stunning vocalists – Uzbeki star Sevara Nazarkhan and Rwanda’s Dorothee Munyaneza – who add their own special qualities to the disc. “We always try to do something where the track is a dialogue between two languages of different kinds,” observes Russell, and Nazarkhan’s duet with O Lionaird is a prime example of that – rhythmic, evocative and gorgeously shaded, with a raw, sensual edge.
Martin Russell was also responsible for bringing Munyaneza to Anatomic. He’d worked with her on the soundtrack to Hotel Rwanda, and “she stuck in my mind”. When the Afro Celts had the backing tracks for the new disc, “we played her some of the ideas in progress and she came back three days later with very strong ideas”, which became ‘When I Still Needed You’ (“one of our strongest statements as a band,” says Emmerson) and ‘Mother’.
“When I listened to the kora on ‘Mother’, immediately I saw the scenery of the song,” says Munyenza, a survivor of the horrific 1994 genocide in her homeland. “When the genocide started my mother was already working in England, and I was in Kigali with my father and my siblings. On 25th July, my birthday, my mother came. It’s something I never thought would happen. Just seeing her, hearing people scream with joy, knowing she was back, all was suddenly well and everything made sense. So that song is about how happy and how sad and how moving the whole event was. I wanted to convey that feeling of sheer happiness and ecstasy.”
” ‘Mother’,” McNally points out “hits you in a place where you belong. I was almost in tears when we finally mixed it; I feel it’s a truly beautiful piece of work.”
The album also includes two previously unrecorded concert staples, ‘Drake’ – originally written for Release – and the atmospheric, spectacular ‘Mojave’, a tune that still affects the band “in a simplified way that a lot of other things do in a complicated way. Iarla opens up with a call, it sounds Native American, and it brought us to that wide-open vast space of Mojave. The rhythm’s hard and pounding, but the tune is soft and invites you in. That one comes purely from the heart.”
With Anatomic, Afro Celt Sound System continue to open up the new horizons they started exploring ten years ago. As James McNally concludes, “there’s a lot of soul in this body of work.”
Pod is a personal collection of some of the very best remixes from the Afro Celt Sound System’s career to 2004. The album also showcases previously unreleased material, and reinvents old classics with a driving new rhythm section.
The original version of Pod features an exclusive 25-minute DVD created in partnership with Real World’s multimedia department. In short Pod takes their music kicking and screaming into a new era of surround sound entertainment and cinematic pyrotechnics.
The Real World Gold reissue has become a two-CD set, packaged together with Release Remixes, originally unleashed in 2000 but long since unavailable on CD. As its name suggests, it contains reinterpretations of the much-beloved track Release from the likes of Masters At Work, Rollo and Sister Bliss from Faithless, and Bipolar. It’s a heady reminder of just how this band sketched out the musical future.
“Unlike conventional remix albums, we have actually used the opportunity to work in our new band,” guitarist and founder member Simon Emmerson pointed out when discussing the ideas behind Pod. “With tracks such as ‘Riding The Skies’ and ‘Whirly 3’ we actually remixed in live drum and bass. Effectively we’ve taken DJ culture and turned it on its head by remixing with real instruments. For example ‘Whirly 3’ has been completely reworked by the band and is now the big finale tune in our live set.”
There are also remixes from celebrated producers Masters At Work, Rae & Christian, DJ Toshio from U.F.O., and Rollo & Sister Bliss, mixed into a storming club set by Simon Emmerson: “The whole DJ mix section is indicative of my DJ work. It’s become more common place for Global Beat DJ’s to beat-mix nowadays and I wanted to represent that.”
On the DVD we get to glimpse the Afro Celt Sound System at their most scintillating, live on stage in Seattle during WOMAD USA 2001. “It was an historic gig for us,” explains Emmerson. The band played in front of 15,000 people, with Peter Gabriel making a rare guest appearance on stage. “It was really the year that we were set to break America, but then 9/11 happened and our video of When You’re Falling had to be withdrawn just as it was about to go on heavy rotation on VH-1. It’s such a powerful video, but it was just one of the many setbacks that we’ve had to endure as a band.”
The album artwork features a Japanese print taken from the Getty Collection. “As this was a special package with a fresh approach to the many facets of our the music we felt compelled to create a new atmosphere for the cover,” McNally points out. “Jamie Reid’s artwork has been very significant on previous albums. His visuals have complemented the ethos of the band, and our collaboration with him continues fantastically on the visual feast of North on the DVD. But as a band who encompass the element of surprise, our fans know not to have any preconceived ideas of what we will do next. The image of six Japanese men in their hotel pods looking in different directions very much represents us as a band. We are very different people coming from different cultures and experiences, but within each of us lies one common spirit that connects us all and fundamentally finding that spirit is the key to what makes the Afro Celts tick.”
If the band’s enthusiasm for the musical aspect of ‘Pod’ weren’t enough, then they are positively ecstatic over the multimedia aspect of it. “We have live footage of the band in Seattle during one of our best gigs, and we’ve remixed ‘North’ in 5/1 surround sound. In that way you can fill the room with sound from five speakers and one bass bin. It’s as close to the studio experience as you’ll get. Our music works really well in this context and it’s in keeping with the bands desire to always keep moving forward.” Combining the crisp, expansive multi-directional sound with the stunning visual montage of classic Afro Celt footage and spiralling computer generated effects, this revitalised track provided a pivotal moment in the evolution of the Afro Celt Sound System.
No less remarkable are the video’s for ‘When You’re Falling’ and the Rae & Christian remix of ‘Persistence of Memory’. For the latter director Jean Francois Julian travelled to around twenty countries and four continents covering Asia, North and South America, Africa, the Eastern Bloc, and Iceland in an amazing six-week period. The startling imagery makes ‘Persistence of Memory’ a truly memorable, and culturally vibrant visual experience.
It was 1996 when Afro Celt Sound System first assaulted our senses with their innovative fusion of West African rhythms, Irish traditional music and cutting-edge dance grooves. Since then, there have been many lesser imitators and the global beat movement they pioneered has entered the mainstream.
Recorded and produced in their own studio in Islington (once owned by Pink Floyd), this is an album that marks a new departure for Afro Celt Sound System in a journey which began when they came together at a Real World recording week in 1995 to make their ground-breaking debut, Volume One: Sound Magic. More organic with greater emphasis on real instruments and songcraft and with less reliance on programmed beats and grooves than before, ‘Seed’, their fourth album, was released in 2003.
“When we started, what we did was a very radical idea,” said Simon Emmerson when Seed was released. “Now everyone’s using DJs and programmed loops and ethnic samples over the top. We’ve moved on and what you hear on this album is a product of all the years of playing live and interacting with each other as musicians.”
“We’ve found our own space and it’s almost like we’re starting again,” added co-producer and multi-instrumentalist, James McNally. “We made three sound system albums. This is the first fully-developed band album. It’s called ‘Seed’ because it really does feel like a new beginning. There’s no way we could have made a record like this when we started.”
Of course, ‘Seed’ contains much that will be familiar to Afro Celts fans. The core members remained remarkably constant – Simon Emmerson (guitars), James McNally (keyboards,piano, bodhran, bamboo flute), Iarla O Lionaird (vocals), Martin Russell (keyboards, programming & co-production), N’Faly Kouyate (vocals, kora, balafon), Myrdhin (harp), Moussa Sissokho (percussion), Johnny Kalsi (dhol drum, tabla), Mass (drum programming) and Emer Maycock (uilleann pipes).
The magical process of how the band’s three producers, James, Martin and Simon, work together is the key to what Afro Celts albums are about how they bounce ideas off of and inspire each other. With three people having to find a way to interplay and connect – sometimes disagreeing and deciding to leave a track on the shelf for at least the time-being it sets a standard much higher than that which could be achieved by any one musician producing alone. It’s only after the triumvirate have set up the tracks that they call upon the spiritual and emotional impact that Iarla and N’faly bring to their songs respectively, and upon the technical ability of Mass.
As the band grew, roles subtly shifted. Mass began to take over most of the drum programming, leaving Simon free to play more guitar, mandolin and bazouki. On the title track of ‘Seed’, he even played some classic, swamp-laden slide. Iarla continued to grow in stature as a lyricist of considerable depth and feeling. James’ reputation cemented as a tour de force both in song/tune composition and with his vocal and strings arrangements. The influence of N’Faly – ‘the Jimi Hendrix of the kora’, the band called him – became more significant as he contributed more to the singing and writing. The percussion loops of Johnny Kalsi gave way to live drumming, and the band decided quite early on in the recording process that they also wished to use a real bass on the majority of tracks, with guest players including the eminent Jah Wobble.
The result is an album that sounds more natural and organic than anything previously from the Afro Celts, with more emphasis on the playing and less on the programmed beats. Musically, it was also immediately obvious that Afro Celts were still boldly expanding their horizons. The West African and Irish influences were still the bedrock of the sound. Yet within Seed’s first three tracks, we hear such diverse new elements in the meltdown as a flamenco guitar and a Brazilian vocalist. ‘Seed’ also marked the emergence of Afro Celts as fully-formed songwriters.
Among the honorary Afro Celts adding to the rich tapestry on ‘Seed’ are Irish rocker Mundy, Ms Dynamite’s backing vocalists, the Brazilian singer Nina Miranda, the Canadian flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook and the virtuoso traditional fiddlers, Martin Hayes and Eileen Ivers.
When Simon Emmerson began to piece together the Afro Celt Sound System in 1992 he had no idea where the journey would take him. But Emmerson’s fascination with the link between Irish and African traditions introduced him to three like-minded souls – co-producer and multi-instrumentalist James McNally; vocalist and lyricist Iarla O Lionaird; co-producer, engineer and programmer Martin Russell. The bonding of these four members turned the Afro Celts from a project into a band – a band like no other. The proof is to be found on their third album ‘Further In Time’.
On ‘Further In Time’ the Afro Celts’ Creative Core has created a musical world that brings alive the talents of an additional six members and over twenty guests, including vocalists Robert Plant and Peter Gabriel. The world created on ‘Further In Time’ is truly immense, containing multitudes. It is where voices from African, Irish and Welsh traditions blaze into a future informed by pop craft, rock power and dance euphoria; where the thunderous rhythms of the Punjabi region engage in dialogue with the African talking drum; where the sounds of Morocco and Eastern Europe are woven through cutting edge psychedelic club soundscapes and disarmingly sharp, disciplined songwriting.
“Ever since we started, that has been key to what the Afro Celts were about – drawing on the past but looking for the future,” says James McNally, whose writing provides the framework for the songs on ‘Further In Time’. “I come from a London Irish background, but every tune I’ve written for Afro Celts has been my own. The power of the band is the way we connect and relate to each other; we all want to go into new areas – areas we can only get to by going there together.”
This creative parity is the key to how the band work. “When we did the first record, I don’t think any of us thought there’d be another album,” explains Iarla O Lionaird.
“The big change came when we took the first album onto a live arena. We had to become a band; before that we were just a concept,” adds McNally. Then, just as the group were preparing to record their second album, keyboard player Jo Bruce died suddenly from an asthma attack in November 1997.
“He was a lot younger than any of us, a vibrant central figure in the band. There was a lot of grieving. When a guy like that whom you closely worked with dies suddenly, it’s a massive blow,” recalls Iarla. For some time it seemed like the Afro Celts’ journey had come to an end, that the tribe would go their separate ways. “We gave so much of our lives to it at that point, if we hadn’t we’d just have fallen apart,” says James.
“It was our way of surviving the trauma,” adds Simon. “The first album was a project, the second album was by a band and the third album is by a much better band than the second.”
‘Volume 2: Release’ was understandably a darker record than its predecessor, but out of the loss and adversity the band discovered new strength. Again, the Afro Celts’ focus became sharper and their personality grew as they hit the international live circuit. The effect these performances had on the audience was also felt in the band. “You can see what each member brings to the overall picture more readily live,” says Emmerson. ” We write with the live show in mind – this is the point where Johnny (Kalsi, dhol drum player) comes to the fore, here’s the part where James plays a tune. You can almost see the show develop before you as you write; the entry points are marked out very clearly.”
“Most bands meet first, develop a bond and their music comes after that; effectively, we’re doing that backwards. This is the first time we’ve gone into a recording fully aware of our strengths and weaknesses,” says Martin Russell.
” For this record the only rules were – we’re going to break all the rules. The great thing about the Afro Celts is that there’s enough creativity and maverick spirit to push the boat out into unchartered waters,” agrees Emmerson. The departure was signalled by two songs, ‘When You’re Falling’ (co-produced with Stephen Hague) and ‘Life begin Again’ – shaped by McNally and Emmerson, dressed with Iarla O Lionaird’s lyrics and sculpted by Russell.
Originally, Iarla intended to sing the songs, but as they took shape they seemed more suited to two vocalists whose cross-cultural connections are well documented. “Peter Gabriel has been a great mentor and role model for me,” he says. ” Years ago I remember travelling in Ireland listening to his music, wondering if I’d ever get to meet people like him. I have been honoured to work with him in the past, but part of the magic of ‘When You’re Falling’ was that we didn’t meet – he just took the song and put his own turn on it.”
Ever since Robert Plant went on a musical exploration on the Indian subcontinent with Led Zeppelin colleague Jimmy Page in 1972, he’s been on a musical journey that’s taken him through Morocco, Celtic folk and Arabic folk. Johnny Kalsi, who got to know Plant when they both worked with Transglobal Underground, approached him to come and work on ‘Life Begin Again’. To the group’s amazement, he readily accepted. “If anyone had said to me in 1995 that I’d be making a record with Robert Plant in six years, I would have laughed at them. If anyone had said it in 1978, when I was in a punk band, I’d have hit them,” jokes Emmerson.
“It’s a lyric based on a folk tale, a rite of Spring, a prayer to reinvigorate; epic words that need an epic voice. I would have sung it, but not nearly as well as Robert – he gives it a real blood and guts performance,” says Iarla.
For Plant, working with the Afro Celts proved rejuvenating: “It was a lovely progression from what I’ve done in the past; it’s like having a musical gastronomica to draw on. Iarla’s lyric reminded me of the wistful abstract but optimistic way I used to write in Led Zep, the faith in positivity and a better time ahead. It’s about making the song seduce the listener and it was very appropriate for me because I could recognise it from my past writing experiences.”
But realising the Afro Celts’ artistic and commercial potential has also meant showcasing the bravura talents of the ten core members, as well as invited guests. Co-producers James McNally and Martin Russell personify both the organic and technological side of the group.
Afro Celts’ songs develop in many different ways but often in a fashion favoured by outfits as diverse as Radiohead, Public Enemy and U2, sorting through a wealth of grooves and jamming sessions – a process N’Faly likens to “making the big salad.”
“There’s so many spontaneous moments that would never have happened if we’d been using tapes rather than a hard disc; we would have had a roomful of tapes,” asserts Emmerson. “Martin sorts that all out. He’s the creative librarian of the group and the amount of information amassed for this record was extraordinary; I don’t know how he held it altogether.”
“I’m very lucky,” says Russell. “I get to record everyone and get an objective viewpoint on the possibilities that are emerging.” As Robert Plant notes, a sense of balance is vitally important for an outfit as large as the Afro Celts. A determination to put the group’s African elements in a sharper focus this time round reaps dividends on the title track which showcases the exquisite talents of N’Faly Kouyate and ‘Shadowman’, where Demba Barry takes centre stage. “We just gave him an open mic and let him go,” says Emmerson.
“It’s a modern style of African singing which, to be honest, we never knew Demba did; very punchy, rap-like. It was amazing to us,” says O Lionaird. “The second album tended to present our art in a traditional way. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but in the context of the Afro Celts you don’t want to be a museum curator – you want to let the creative juices flow.”
And flow they do, from the fiery clamour of the opening instrumental ‘North’ to the final meditative beauty of ‘Onwards’. Radiant, challenging, uplifting, resilient – together the Afro Celts have transformed Emmerson’s pipe dream. Highlighting the group’s democracy in action ethic, the album’s stunning soundscape has largely been achieved by the three-man production team of Russell, Emmerson and McNally.
“Each of us has periods of very strong vision and we give each other the window to go for it. If one of us stumbles and falls, the others can come in and lift him,” says Martin Russell. “I’d worked as an engineer with a whole range of music. The fact that we throw the rule book out of the window and follow our gut instinct about what will combine tastefully and successfully has been so liberating.”
“People ask why have I written in English on this album, the fact that I’d never done it before was reason enough. That’s what the Afro Celts are about, forging new territory,” says O Lionaird.
“I’ve played in bands for twenty years and had some major inspiration, but this is the band where I really found myself; this is where I’m really meant to be. I’ve hardly spoken to Moussa, but when we get on stage and play percussion we’re in full-on conversation and it’s joyous and provocative; it makes me feel I belong more than anything else,” says James McNally.
“The whole thing about Afro Celts is that we do all the things bands like us shouldn’t do. We should never have sold this many records; we should be filed under obscure and difficult. But we’ve established ourselves as the masters of the eight-minute voyaging epic in the global dance area now we’ve shown we can make real World pop music,” asserts Emmerson.
Aside from its musical riches and visionary ambition, the cultural, social and political reverberations of ‘Further In Time’ are considerable. The Afro Celts are a proud advance on the multi-cultural outfits who have been such a vibrant force in British music over the past two decades. “Conglomerates like this aren’t easy to keep together, but when it works and everyone’s contribution evolves naturally it’s beautiful. It’s very refreshing that many of the guys go off to do different things and come back reinvigorated,” says Emmerson. “The thing that holds us together is the voyager element. My family were Russian Jews, N’Faly’s people were griot travellers; the Celts, the Sheikhs – we’re all essentially Nomadic people.”
Three years on and over 200,000 record sales from the release of the critically acclaimed debut “Volume 1: Sound Magic”, Afro Celt Sound System are now recognised as one of the most innovative and eclectic groups to emerge from the ’90s meltdown. With the release of their powerful second album, the scene was set for a summer assault on this year’s major European festivals.
“Volume 2 : Release” is the realisation of a year spent writing collectively. It’s been a difficult time – a period of traumatic realignment after the unexpected death of keyboard player Jo Bruce – but, after much soul searching, the band emerged to produce a dynamic and emotionally charged album that was destined to become one of the year’s landmarks.
Simon Emmerson and Martin Russell’s multi-layered production has many hidden depths, bringing out the delicacy of the acoustic instruments – harp, kora, talking drum, bodhran, djembe, whistle, guitar, Gaelic and African vocals – but placing them in a totally immersive Pan European context.
The classic Celtic and West African flavour, with its inherent energy and joy, was offset by a bitter-sweet sadness, interpreted through the dynamic and expressive playing of the guest performers – Nigel Eaton on hurdy gurdy and Michael McGoldrick and Ronan Browne on uilleann pipes from the new generation of young folk musicians, Youth on bass, Dhol Foundation’s Johnny Kalsi on dhol drums and tablas, and Sinead O’Connor on guest vocals.
Volume 2 represents the transformation of a project, conceived at the 1996 Real World Recording Week, into a cohesive band with a unique sound and style. The Afro Celts have made the record they collectively wanted to make, forged out of over 100 live gigs and TV appearances; a record that reflects the playing skills and personalities of the individual core members: Simon Emmerson (guitars, programming, keyboards), N’Faly Kouyate (vocals, kora, balafon), Iarla O Lionáird (vocals), James McNally (keyboard, whistle, bodhran, accordion), Myrdhin (Celtic harp), Martin Russell (keyboards, programming, engineering), and Moussa Sissokho (talking drum, djembe).
As Martin Russell says: “Everyone wanted the album to be hard and kicking, to reflect the live attitude of the band. However, we didn’t want huge thunderous beats with token African and Celtic sound-bites over the top. We had to create a landscape, where the band’s personality could speak for itself.”
The Afro Celts are a rare paradox: deeply rooted in some of the oldest musical traditions in the world, they happily collide with cutting edge futuristic sounds and beats – Iarla has a background in the ancient unaccompanied vocal style of West Ireland called Sean Nos; Myrdhin plays a deeply ancestral Breton harp; both N’Faly and Moussa are venerated griots (the West African bardic school of master musicians). Match this alongside Simon’s involvement in experimental dance music, and James’s background with the irreverent Pogues and Irish hard-core hip hop group Marxman, and you have a band that, in one summer, stormed the stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival, played to a full-on dance crowd at Tribal Gathering and followed Skunk Anansie at the Lowlands Festival in Holland, playing to a wildly enthusiastic 20,000 plus crowd of North European MTV rock heads.
Now, with magazines such as i-D reassessing folk music, crafts and culture (“If folk feels too literal and too macro a term for what’s happening in music and fashion right now, craft – the reductive act of creation, simple or sophisticated – is where a lot of the most exciting developments are being made.” Bethan Cole, March 1999), the reality of the Afro Celt muse becomes all the more poignant in its multi-cultural context.
With Afro Celts, there’s no attempt at making authentic Breton, Irish or West African music, people are just themselves. The master musicians in Afro Celts understand their tradition better than any academic; their knowledge is deep and profound. Any criticisms of spurious authenticity and cross-cultural liberalism are dismissed out of hand by the band and seem all the more irrelevant as the Afro Celt modus operandi develops its own momentum that’s already carried it way beyond the initial inspiration.
Simon Emmerson: “It’s very difficult to get across to people that what we’re doing is rooted in my neighbourhood in East London. Our studio is based in the same building as Fat Man Sound System – one of London’s oldest; Club Dog are also there; my neighbour runs Jah Youth Sounds; Zion Train live up the road, as does Adrian Sherwood’s On U Sound System; within a two mile radius of my house there’s been Talvin Singh’s club, the first drum and bass sessions, the Whirl-Y-Gig and countless other similar clubs. This is my musical environment.
The album’s opener is ‘Release’, in many ways the band’s most personal and autobiographical track. It starts with an ambient drone and ancestral invocation, Iarla O Lionáird’s dark vocals sharing the stage with the vocals of Sinead O’Connor.
‘Lovers Of Light’ takes the concept of the reel, updating it for late ’90s consumption without losing the essential raw spirit that was evident with early pioneers such as The Bothy Band and Moving Hearts.
‘Eireann’ is quite simply a classical Afro Celt song where African and Gaelic vocals flow effortlessly over kora and whistle refrains.
‘Urban Aire’ moves in slow motion through an urban soundscape, showcasing the hypnotic uilleann pipes of Ronan Browne, mixing seamlessly into ‘Big Cat’ with its straight-ahead 4/4 bubbling Afro beat centred around N’Faly’s balafon, Moussa’s talking drum, James’s bodhran and the occasional earth shattering intervention of Johnny’s dhol drum. James: “The way the bodhran is used on this track and throughout the album, to drive the grooves in conjunction with the African percussion, is unique to this instrument and to the band’s sound.”
‘Even In My Dreams’ is an ironic culture clash, mixing a southern Irish militant republican verse with an Irish drinking song, that floats over a dubbed and highly addictive ambi-reggae groove put together by DJ and programmer Ron Aslan.
‘Amber’ features a heart rending vocal meditation from Iarla and N’Faly; its plaintive late night ambient atmosphere gets taken over by the Celtic harp refrain of ‘Hypnotica’ – a flowing kora solo by N’Faly and a final heavy North London techno dub deconstruction.
The harder trance-based ‘Riding The Waves’ is reflective of the band’s full-on live set, incorporating traditional Irish and African melodies and live playing with hard-core techno like no other band can.
‘I Think Of…’ is a personal testament of faith from Iarla, empowered in turn by a thundering West African drum pattern and classic Afro Celt reel. Iarla: “‘I Think Of…’ is about the band having to dig deeper than it ever feared after Jo’s death, and finding essential truths after the despair. We had two choices, and we realised we had to go on.”
James: “I guess, to summarise, our style of writing and playing music does not pretend to adhere to any particular traditional style except our own. Together we write Afro Celt music: music rooted in the past that’s reaching into the future – that’s it. The collaboration of the various musicians within the band was effortless, heartfelt and very harmonious. My faith in the others was constantly rewarded with stunning contributions and performances. It’s like we can almost read each other’s minds; it’s uncanny, transporting and deeply magical.”
The sound of the past transforming into the future.
Volume 1 – Sound Magic was released on 15 July 1996, and was the first fruit of a collaboration between a group of the finest African musicians, their counterparts from the Celtic communities of western Europe and several of Britain’s most respected dance music producers.
Produced by Simon Emmerson, the Grammy-nominated producer behind Senegalese singer Baaba Maal’s albums Firin’ In Fouta and Lam Toro (both of which featured contributions from Celtic musicians), Sound Magic is the brainchild of Emmerson and Jamie Reid, the artist responsible for the original Sex Pistols’ record sleeves.
Recorded at the Real World Recording Week in July 1995, the album features three of Ireland’s most respected traditional and folk musicians, sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird and uilleann pipers Davy Spillane and Ronan Browne; Pogues member James McNally on whistle, bodhran and accordion; Kenyan nyatiti player Ayub Ogada; Kauwding Cissokho and Masamba Diop, two members of Baaba Maal’s band; and an all-star ensemble of African and Celtic musicians.
The musics of Africa and the Celts display remarkably similar genes— the harp and the kora, the bodhran and the talking drum. Is this a simple coincidence? Ancient historians talk of ‘Black Celts’: were the first inhabitants of western Europe originally African?
Sound Magic is no ungainly trawl through tradition, trying to weld different heritages together. The instruments may belong to history, but the music sits proudly at the forefront of modern dance. The beats and rhythms belong to today’s club culture: jungle nestles next to jigs and reels; African jazz flows into Gaelic eulogies.
For many of the musicians this was a personal odyssey back to their pre-history; for others it was a journey into the new; for all of them it was a chance to try something they knew little about.
As Iarla Ó Lionáird says, “There are some musicians who believe you should not tamper with tradition, and I respect them for that. But I like contemporary music too and I wanted to try something new. But the thing is, I’ve taken the tapes round to friends, thinking they might hate what I’d done, and nobody has.”
The Afro Celt Sound System’s project brings folk music into a modern sphere, all the time admitting and rejoicing in a rare trek into pre-history. The music is an explosion of contemporary styles and ancient traditions, coming together to explore the Celtic and African roots of modern music in the British Isles and discover the relationship between the music’s past and its future.
The sound owes its existence to an inspired acknowledgement of a long-forgotten diaspora, when the Celts moved from the Middle East, through Africa and into Europe. But it is also a sound that has absorbed everything that is happening in British and Irish music – whether it is jungle or ambient global trance. It is the sound of the past being transformed into the future.
The two ‘Whirl-Y-Reel’ tracks could be Goldie-meets-Tricky-at-Riverdance. ‘Inion’ is a North African call to prayer, drifting through the air of western Ireland. ‘Dark Moon, High Tide’ is a floating, whispering ghost that builds into a wild jig. ‘Nil Cead Againn Dul Abhaile’ sounds 1,000 years old, but tells of the plight of refugees from today’s wars. ‘Sure As Knot’, a track Simon Emmerson first heard played solo on a kora in Senegal, transforms into a jungle meltdown, proving that the most modern form of music around is closer to ancient history than any drum’n’bass fan would care to admit.