Simon Emmerson, who died in March a day after his 67th birthday, was a unique figure in world and roots music. A guitarist, Grammy-nominated producer, DJ and creative force behind both Afro Celt Sound System and The Imagined Village, above all he will be best remembered for his gift for fusing disparate musical styles and facilitating the diverse array of musicians his projects invariably required. Unexpected, surprising, innovative and often genre-defying though his ventures were, the end results went beyond mere novelty to produce something always coherent and invariably exciting.
Emmerson began his career (under the pseudonym Simon Booth) as a guitarist in the now-forgotten post-punk group Methodishca Tune in the early 1980s before joining Cardiff-based Weekend, where his influence was more keenly felt in its eclectic world music borrowings. He then formed the jazz-dance-accented Working Week, and in 1984 he played on Everything but the Girl’s debut album, Eden. He went on to produce more than 80 albums, and contributed in various guises – writing and arranging, singing, playing, remixing – to more than 150 others. His range was esoteric, stretching from his Grammy-nominated production for Baaba Maal’s Firin’ in Fouta (1994) to working with Robert Plant on Life Begin Again in 2003, and co-producing Sinéad O’Connor’s Collaborations in 2005.
More personal were the keen twitcher’s mixes of music and field recordings of birdsong that he made for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and it’s perhaps his love of nature that provides a clue to his career-defining conviction that all music, whatever its origin and style, was interconnected and compatible. It explains, at least, the pan-global approach he took with Afro Celt Sound System, which he formed in 1995.
Across their nine albums, Emmerson sugared the ensemble’s core line-up with the likes of Iarla Ó Lionáird, Martin Hayes, Davey Spillane, Moussa Sissokho, Johnny Kalsi and Ayub Ogada. The result situated Irish traditional music within a wider, international context, one that deliriously embraced the old and the new. Their 2017 album, The Source, earned them recognition as Best Group in that year’s Songlines Music Awards.
Perhaps his abiding legacy will be The Imagined Village, a roots-centred collective he established in 2004 with a broad, multicultural ambition and accent that variously embraced ska, dub, reggae, bhangra, drum’n’bass, Indian classical tropes and much else besides. Its original line-up featured Kalsi, Billy Bragg, Eliza and Martin Carthy, Chris Wood and Sheema Mukherjee. Guests included Paul Weller, Benjamin Zephaniah and Sheila Chandra. Producing three essential albums and earning a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award, after an unproductive period they reunited in 2022 for two summer festival appearances.
Among the many tributes paid to him on social media, music journalist Pete Paphides lauded Emmerson’s ‘audacious, brilliant vision,’ while his The Imagined Village-collaborator Eliza Carthy wrote: ‘Love you, my beloved boss and brother. Too soon.’