Formed: 1995, London, England
Members: Ronan Browne, uilleann pipes (born 7 August 1965, Dublin, Ireland); Kauwding Cissakho; Massamba Diop; Simon Emmerson, producer, guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, programming, keyboards (born 1950, Wolverhampton, England); Johnny Kalsi, dhol drum, tabla (born Leeds, England); N'Faly Kouyate, kora, balaphon, vocals (born in Guinea); Mass, drum programming; Emer Maycock, uilleann pipes; James McNally, keyboards, whistle, bamboo flute, bodhran, accordion; Myrdhin, Breton harp; Ayub Ogada, nyatiti (born Kenya); Iarla O'Lionaird, vocals (born Cúil Aodha, County Cork, Ireland, 1964); Martin Russell, keyboards; Moussa Sissoko, djembe, talking drum; Dave Spillaine, uilleann pipes. Former members: Jo Bruce, keyboards (born 9 February 1969; died 8 October 1997). Guest artists: Jah Wobble, bass; Peter Gabriel, Nina Mirando, Sinéad O'Connor, Robert Plant, vocals; Jesse Cook, flamenco guitar; Martin Hayes, Eileen Ivers, fiddles.
Genre: World, Fusion
Best-selling album since 1990: Volume 3: Further in Time (2001)
Hit songs since 1990: "When You're Falling" (2001)
AfroCelts is the name taken by the ensemble formerly known as Afro-Celt Sound System upon the release of its fourth album, Seed (2003). The band's conceits and charms remain the same: AfroCelts is a recording and concertizing troupe creating a fantasy fusion. In it, African drums accent keening U.K. pop and traditional singing, electric guitars, studio keyboards, and strings, and identifiably Gaelic instruments such as uilleann pipes, bodhran, and Breton harp are also blended into the band's technically slick and sophisticated mix.
Over the course of a selective performance schedule initiated at Peter Gabriel's July 1995 WOMAD (World of Music Art and Dance) festival in Reading, England, and the release of four albums, AfroCelts has realized the original inspiration of Simon Emmerson. Emmerson first toyed with the multicultural notion of mixing African and Celtic signature sounds by introducing uilleann pipes into an album he produced for Senegalese singer/bandleader Baba Maal in the late 1980s. Emmerson was at the time also a producer of Afro-pop and active in the experimental dance world. He drew on both circles of contacts to convene musicians from West Africa and the British Isles for the WOMAD sojourn, though he claimed his collaborators were merely fellow residents of his London neighborhood, a hotbed of musicians, mixers, and sound studios.
James McNally of the Irish band the Pogues and Martin Russell of the hard-core Irish hip-hop band Marxman have become Emmerson's co-producers and co-composers. The intricate arrangements require creative input from kora player N'Faly Kouyate and percussionist Moussa Sissoko and uilleann pipists, including Ronan Browne, from the touring cast of the theatrical event "Riverdance." Early on, Emmerson was encouraged by visual artist Jamie Reid, who created his work "Afro Celts: Music from the Light Continent: Sound Magic" especially for the cover of Afro-Celt Sound System's debut album, Volume 1: Sound Magic (1996), prior to its production.
Afro-Celt Sound System made its U.S. concert debut in July 1997, after having established itself as a U.K. success through a repeat WOMAD festival performance in 1996. It gained attention at well-received concerts at the Cambridge Folk Festival, Tribal Gathering (attended by a dance crowd), and at the Lowlands Festival in the Netherlands (cablecast on MTV). The band made its WOMAD USA festival debut in 1999, and Gabriel sang with it at WOMAD USA 2001, making his first American performance since 1992.
Though AfroCelts spotlights the undiluted talents of traditionalists, it is not a purist folk unit. Afro-Celt Sound System recordings always have glossy pop formulas and at least one mainstream rock ballad at their cores. One description of the compositional equation as "jigs and reels atop global percussion and rave rhythms" ignores Emmerson's heroic guitar lines and proud balladry that in Volume 3: Further in Time (2001) was given voice by Gabriel (on "When You're Falling"), Sinéad O'Connor (on the title track), and Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin fame (on "Life Begin Again").
McNally concurs, saying, "Our style of writing and playing music does not pretend to adhere to any particular traditional style except our own . . . music rooted in the past that's reaching into the future." On Seed (2002), AfroCelts departs from its central African and Celtic sources to include a flamenco guitar solo and a Brazilian singer. The album is promoted as AfroCelts's new beginning, and something of a regrouping after the death in 1997 of keyboardist Jo Bruce, son of Jack Bruce, bassist for the legendary British blues-rock band Cream.
Emmerson, discussing the ensembles' name change, explained, "We're not a sound system anymore. . . . We've developed a very defined sound which has come from us playing together. It's not about a DJ and programs and samples. It's taken a long time, but we've finally become a band." Presumably a pinch of hardship is necessary to leaven cleverness and virtuosity in the achievement of such musical status.
Volume 1: Sound Magic (Real World, 1996); Volume 2: Release (Real World, 1999); Volume 3: Further in Time (Real World, 2001); Seed (Real World, 2003).
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