When Afro Celt Sound System burst onto the music scene some 15 years ago their impact was so instant, so astounding, that it hit like a thunder crack. Here was a band unlike anything else, a band whose fusion of West African rhythms, Irish traditional music and cutting-edge dance grooves battered the senses and unleashed a wellspring of joy and liberation. Festival audiences did a double take then danced like dervishes. Albums flew off the shelves. There were awards. Grammy nominations. Star turns on big film soundtracks.
Afro Celt Sound System were the perfect storm: a phenomenon whose confluence of elements swept you away on a journey of light and shade, delicacy and power. When they added diverse new touches – Indian bhangra, Arabic influences, dub reggae, more – they did so seamlessly, in ways that only enhanced their sound and emphasised their openness. A supergroup whose line-up expanded and evolved around four core members (Simon Emmerson, James McNally, Iarla O'Lionaird, Martin Russell), the Afro Celt's pan-global sound redefined dance music and stumped music critics. They remain defiantly, enigmatically uncategorisable.
"We had the finest musicians, singers and percussionists from all corners of the Earth," says producer, composer and multi instrumentalist James McNally of guest artists that ranged from Peter Gabriel, Sinead O'Connor and Robert Plant to Jesse Cook, Eileen Ivers and Mundy. "In their own unique way, with their own unique talents, each played a vital part in the Afro Celt collaborative philosophy."
The world's press waxed superlative: ‘a hurricane let loose' declared Q Magazine. ‘Hearing is believing,' announced Mojo. ‘Heady, heartfelt music', proclaimed the Wall St Journal. Word of mouth spread. A host of imitators soon began crossing cultural boundaries bent on embracing the future without losing sight of the past. None of them, of course, caught the essence of Afro Celts. Much copied, they were never surpassed.
Now the time has come to move over, pretenders: Afro Celt Sound System is back. Back after a five-year-break that enabled a host of wildly successful individual projects. Back to live performance with the original touring line-up (the four core members plus Johnny Kalsi, N'faly Kouyate, Emer Mayock, Moussou Sissokho and Ian Markin) that played to sell out crowds worldwide and made legendary appearances at WOMAD, Glastonbury, Montreux Jazz Festival and other illustrious shindigs.
Back – right now - with Capture, a career-spanning double CD that cherry-picks from the collective's five acclaimed studio albums and divides the glittering proceeds into songs (Verse) and instrumentals (Chorus). Here, then, are the classics that forged the group's reputation: the electro-African-Indian-aire, Lagan. The raw, super charged Irish reel, Lovers of Light. The euphoric trance number Whirly 1. The mighty Mojave with its deft polyrhythms, fierce programming and transporting Gaelic vocals. An entire decade's worth of music beautifully re-mastered in ways that form a cohesive journey, lend the sound a new warmth and allow the dynamics to emerge as originally intended.
"Our music never felt forced," says singer and lyricist Iarla O'Lionaird. "It just tripped out, very loose and clear, on everything from the Irish-tunes-on-acid to the gloriously languid stuff. You know that magic, unquantifiable, unpredictable thing that sometimes happens between musicians?" He shrugs and smiles. "That always happened with us."
Given the way Afro Celt's music tends to unfold slowly, building layer upon layer into cathedrals of sound, it was no wonder that film directors the calibre of Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodovar clamoured to work with them. The tracks Dark Moon and Whirly 2 duly graced the soundtracks to Gangs of New York and Live Flesh; the beautiful ballad Mother, a duet between O'Lionaird and Rwandan vocalist and genocide-survivor Dorothee Munyaneza, featured on the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda.
"Our music was always very filmic," says O'Lionaird. "There's an expansiveness to some of our tunes that makes them rise up inside you, particularly on the instrumentals - which were one of our most recognisable signatures. But the most important thing about our music," he adds, "is the physical and spiritual effect it has. People find it enriching, find a positive and beneficial message in it, which is something that we didn't expect when we started."
Afro Celt Sound System was only ever meant to be temporary. But when McNally and O'Lionaird joined forces with producer and guitarist Simon Emmerson and producer, engineer and programmer Martin Russell during Recording Week at Real World Studios in Wiltshire, England, magic happened. With their Irish /African excursions buoyed by access to various members of Baaba Maal's band (Emmerson had just produced the Senegalese superstar's Firin' in Fouta), the addition of keyboard drones, programmed loops and electronic beats established a club aesthetic. The later addition of Indian dhol drummer Johnny Kalsi took the music to another level.
"Everything we did, we did with care," says O'Lionaird. "It wasn't just about plonking a keyboard on a table and pressing a big fat finger down on a key. The drones were made as lovingly as you'd braid someone's hair. I remember playing it to some tastemakers in Ireland and they could hear it. We had a quietly destabilising effect on people's comfort zones with Irish traditional music, which I think is essentially good."
McNally agrees. "We were breaking down categories of world music and rock music and black music," he says. "We left the door open to communicate with each other's traditions and were able to negotiate a real musical discussion with people from other places."
The band's African members – kora player and vocalist N'faly Kouyate, singer and dancer Demba Barry and percussionist Moussa Sissokho among them – proved a revelation: "The African attitude to music is so relaxed and yet their posture is one of reverence," says O'Lionaird. "It was amazing for me to see this feather light texture coupled with this profound emotion, which always happened. These are the extraneous factors that you can't plot."
The Afro Celt Sound System sparked many magical moments. Not the least in the aural landscapes they created live: in the moment O'Lionaird's glorious voice began floating over the majestic uillean pipe playing of Emer Mayock, say. Or when a pacing Johnny Kalsi carved out the geography of the stage with his tasselled, double-sided dhol drum. Or when McNally's rapidfire bodhran-playing interlocked with Sissokho's thundering talking drum to drive the band's grooves.
Capture captures some of the magic that took place in the studio. The lyrics to Release were penned by Sinead O'Connor in direct response to the grief the band were feeling after the sudden and tragic loss of their keyboardist Jo Bruce midway through their second album. "Sinead blew into the studio on a windy November night," remembers McNally, "and blew away again leaving us with something incredibly emotional and powerful. We had this track we didn't know what to do with. Sinead scribbled a few lyrics and bang! She left us completely choked up."
So many outstanding guests, so much outstanding music: the gorgeous Welsh Gaelic vocals of Julie Murphy provided the perfect counterpoint to the unmistakeable voice of Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant on Life Begin Again. Peter Gabriel helped give the group their first Stateside hit when he lent his distinctive tones to When You're Falling. "All our guest collaborators were kindred spirits blessed with the same kind of fearless pioneering style that made us get together in the first place," McNally says.
There'll be more guests, more magic. There'll be a new album soon enough. In the meantime, there is Capture. A compendium that highlights just how visionary Afro Celt Sound System were, and just how vital they are.
The world waits for their next move, poised and ready to dance.
"The time feels right," says O'Lionaird. "Our message is more relevant than ever. Our chemistry and camaraderie is the strongest it's ever been. And there's a desire to make music." He flashes a grin."Which," he adds, "is the most important thing."
Jane Cornwell, June 2010