The RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards will take place in Vicar St., Dublin on 24 October 2019.
Thu, 19 September 19
Released 18 June 2001
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.”
Released 25 January 1999
Released 15 July 1996
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