M'berra is out on Real World Records on 23 April 2021.
Wed, 03 March 21
Released 14 July 1996
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.
Ten o’clock on Friday, 21 July 1995. The Afro Celt Sound System had just finished its performance on the Whirl-Y-Gig stage at the WOMAD Festival in Reading. The audience —an eclectic mix of cutting-edge clubbers, new age hippies and the intrigued— responded to the swirling beats, Irish mysticism and ornate African instrumentation with rabid enthusiasm. They’d never heard anything like it. Neither had the performers— not only was this the first gig by the newest gang in town, but it was the first time that most of them had met.
In 1992, Simon Emmerson moved into the Strongroom Studio, in north London, to complete production on Lam Toro, his first album with Senegalese singer Baaba Maal. His idea was to use Davy Spillane, the uilleann pipes player once of Moving Hearts, to add an Irish feel to one of the tracks, complementing the kora, a West African stringed instrument that sounds not unlike the harp. The studio had been decorated in Celtic symbols, a fact both men were convinced contributed to the success of the recording session.
The studio manager told them that the symbols had been painted by Jamie Reid, a name Emmerson remembered for his Situationist artwork for the Sex Pistols. “I sent him a tape of Lam Toro, saying that I’d recorded a collaboration between West African and Irish musicians and that I thought the studio environment had been brilliant. Then he sent me back a piece of art, it was called ‘Afro Celts – Sound Magic, music from the light continent.’ There was a note with it: ‘Here’s the sleeve for the album you are going to make.’ It was so in tune with what I’d been thinking, that I decided I had to give it a go.”
Simon Emmerson, Jo Bruce and Ron Aslan set about creating backing tracks around which they hoped the Afro Celts could weave their melodies and songs. At the same time they had to find musicians who understood the nature of the project.
Breton harpist Myrdhin had played on Emmerson’s second Baaba Maal album, Firin’ In Fouta; punky Scottish folk group Shooglenifty were in Real World Studios at the same time; Kauwding Cissokho (kora) and Masamba Diop (tama) were members of Baaba Maal’s band and had enjoyed experimenting with Celtic folk and electronic dance on Lam Toro and Firin’ in Fouta. Ayub Ogada (nyatiti), from Kenya, is a Real World recording artist in his own right and well known at WOMAD; James McNally (bodhran, whistle and accordion) had been a member of Irish hardcore rap group Marxman and The Pogues. Finally, two of Ireland’s most respected performers came on board: sean nós (‘old style’) singer Iarla Ó Lionáird and, on pipes, flute, mandolin and harmonium, Ronan Browne— two traditional musicians untainted by associations with rock.
Simon Emmerson says, “If I’d known Iarla’s reputation, I’d never have done this, I’d have been too scared. I knew nothing about sean nós, but Iarla said he liked contemporary music —he mentioned Björk— and went for our ideas like a shot.”
With everybody in tune with their roots, their destination and their willingness to cover new ground, recording sessions were planned for July 1995, where musicians and producers gathered for a week at the Real World Studios in Wiltshire. These recording weeks began in 1991 as an experiment to see whether musicians who knew nothing of each other or their music could work together successfully.
“I didn’t want to turn up and hope we could just make some beautiful spontaneous music, I wanted to achieve something. Fortunately, we have managed to do both,” says Simon Emmerson.
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M'berra is out on Real World Records on 23 April 2021.
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