There is a certain musicality and audio-orientation you discover on the late that make you seriously reflect on the concept of ‘revelation’ … and also makes you scream to no-one in particular and to your wav-life in general: where the heck have I been! When a friend sent me the link to Afro Celt Sound System’s latest album Capture, released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records last month on September 6, I was really intrigued by this tongue-tying name and the audacious promise within of a fusion of African and Celtic rhythms and melodies. It was with love at first play.
2010 is Afro Celt Sound System’s 15th anniversary and Capture is a celebration album, a collection of their most defining work remastered: 25 tracks divided in two parts, Chorus (12 tracks) and Verse (13 tracks). Chorus is all-instrumental, Verse contains the songs.
Afro Celt Sound System was born in 1995. Its creat’initiator is producer Simon Emmerson who, whilst working with Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal, was struck by the similarities of the Irish and African music spectrum. With James McNally, the late keyboardist Jo Bruce, Gaelic singer Iarla Ó Lionáird and producer and engineer Martin Russell, Afro Celt Sound System came to be a band and a massive collective. Its additional current members are N’Faly Kouyaté (kora and balafon player), Johnny Kalsi (dhol player), Emer Mayock (flutist), Moussa Sissokho (percussionist on the talking drum and djembe). Each and every one of these artists is an exceptional musician and they play many more instruments than I can point to here.
What Afro Celt Sound System set out to capture 15 years ago was the common essence, the shared flame as it were, of two musical traditions, the Gaelic and the African, through their respective ancient instruments. These heartbeats, trip hop-ed, electro-lit, paced and spaced, began to throb in Peter Gabriel’s studio. The result was a music that is contemporary yet also intimately bound to ancient sounds, drawing on the sonic-scapes of old.
Afro Celt Sound System has gone well beyond the fusion it began welding. Their work is so homogenous that the dhol, djembe and the uilleann pipes seem to always have belonged together, naturally. I think that their sound-search excavated a primal, long forgotten source of exchange beyond the boundaries of words.
Capture is exuberant, a blend of Céilithe gatherings, Afro-rhythms and Indo-beats. Strong percussive tracks (like Lovers Of Light, Shadowman, Whirl Y Reel #2 featuring Davy Spillane) beat like sean-nós dancing, merging and emerging out of the dagga and thili of the dhol, of bamboo and cane wood, out of the talking drum and djembe. These tracks were made to shake a sizeable chunk of our Earth, there is definitely clubbing in mind.
The all-instrumental Capture-Chorus kicks off fly-high with Mojave and within it a purity of vocals only Gaelic chords can touch. The hinterland opens and Irish flutes riding on drones descend. The soundscape of this album moves between the fast pulse of the dhol (Deep Channel), the clarity of the kora (Sure-As-Not) and mesmerizing uilleann pipes. In Colossus, all the strings have a riot, from the kora, to the fiddle and guitar. Glorious uilleann pipes and the balafon open Urban Aire/Big Cat, it is a piece of breathtaking flutes and rippling scores of kora.
On the sonic-canvas of Capture-Verse, there are hues of Banghra (Lagan, Further in Time), bright electrifying splashes of copper guitar slides: it’s the blues, and the ochre earths of West Africa (Seed). Tracks like Eireann and Inion I found really special. The fusion of uilleann pipes, the kora, the flute and Iarla’s voice is, simply put, splendid. Life Begin Again is sung by Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Welsh Gaelic singer Julie Murphy on North African tones of violins. Peter Gabriel interprets When You’re Falling, with a tremendous gospel inspired multi-lingual choir, rising above raw acoustic guitar.
The movie soundtracks Afro Celt Sound System composed for are contained in Capture also: Dark Moon (Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York ), Whirl Y Reel #2 (Pedro Almodovar’s Live Flesh), Chosen (Terry George’s film Hotel Rwanda, for whom they also composed ‘Mama Ararira’ and ‘The Road to Exile). A track not to miss on Capture is Mother, a song between O’Lionaird and Rwandan vocalist and genocide-survivor Dorothee Munyaneza.
Afro Celt System is a formidable collective. Many have contributed, and still do, to what the band is today: Mairead Nesbitt, Francis Hylton, Ian Marking or Sinead O’Connor (Release), Peter Gabriel (When You’re Falling), Robert Plant (Life Begin Again), Rwandan singer Dorothee Munyaneza (on Mother and When I Still Needed You), Irish uilleann piper Davy Spillane (on Whirl Y Reel #2), Liam O’Flynn and Pina Kollars (on Go On Through), Mundy and Eileen Ivers (on Rise Above It), Jesse Cook (on Cyberia), Eileen Ivers, and many others.
Exhausting list isn’t it! But not exhaustive by a minute. With this as a small summary of their achievements, I find it astounding that they have not been riding at the top of the music world’s headlines. Look them up and spread the word! If you’re around London, they will be at the Barbican on November 2.