Afro Celt Sound System

When Afro Celt Sound System burst onto the music scene in 1995, 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— and then danced like dervishes. Albums flew off the shelves. There were awards. Grammy nominations, star turns on big film soundtracks, and major TV ad campaigns.

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, and 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 Ó Lionáird, Martin Russell), the Afro Celts’ 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, Sinéad 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 Street 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.

“Our music never felt forced,” says longtime singer and lyricist Iarla ÓLionáird. “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? That always happened with us.”

Given the way the Afro Celts’ 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 ‘Whirl-Y-Reel 2’ duly graced the soundtracks to Gangs of New York and Live Flesh; the beautiful ballad ‘Mother’, a duet between Ó Lionáird and Rwandan vocalist and genocide survivor Dorothee Munyaneza, was featured in the Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda.

“Our music was always very filmic,” says Ó Lionáird. “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 Ó Lionáird joined forces with producer and guitarist Simon Emmerson and producer, engineer, and programmer Martin Russell during Recording Week 1995 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 Ó Lionáird. “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 de-stabilising 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 Ó Lionáird’s glorious voice began floating over the majestic uilleann pipe playing of Emer Mayock. 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.

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