Afro Celt Sound System

Saor (Free) / News From NowhereVolume 1: Sound Magic
Dark Moon, High TideVolume 1: Sound Magic
House Of The AncestorsVolume 1: Sound Magic
Big CatVolume 2: Release
ColossusVolume 3: Further In Time
The Silken WhipVolume 3: Further In Time
Ayub's Song / As You WereSeed
Beautiful RainVolume 5: Anatomic
MojaveVolume 5: Anatomic




Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

In theory this should not work, a fusion of Irish and African music overlaid with techno and hip-hop. But by golly it does.

Occasionally someone plays you some music that takes your listening in a new and unexpected direction which is exactly what happened to me with the Afro Celt Sound System.

“Listen to this” my brother said to me as he poured yet another glass of wine, “you’ll like it.”

“What is it?” I said.

“No, listen,” he said, “then I’ll tell you.”

He closed the tray of his CD player, sat down next to my sister-in-law and I listened. The opening strains of the first track filled the room and it was one of those ‘wow’ moments. It was the Afro Celt Sound System’s first recording, Volume 1: Sound Magic, and the opening track, the diptych Saor (Free)/News From Nowhere. Sound magic was no exaggeration. This was taking instruments out of context, marrying the uilleann pipes to a kora and producing a sound no-one had heard before.

The background to Afro Celt Sound System can be found elsewhere on the net but in short, the inspiration behind the project dates back to the early nineties when Simon Emmerson, who would become the group’s guitarist, collaborated with Afro-pop star Baaba Maal on an album in Senegal and was struck by the similarity between an African melody and a traditional Irish air. Back in London, Irish musician Davy Spillane told Emmerson about a belief that nomadic Celts lived in Africa or India before they migrated to Western Europe. Whether or not the theory was true, Emmerson was intrigued by the two countries’ musical affinities.

In an experiment, he brought members of Baaba Maal’s band together with traditional Irish musicians to see what kind of music the two groups would create. Adding a dash of modern sound, Emmerson also brought in English dance mixers for an electronic beat. “People thought I was mad when I touted the idea,” he told Jim Carroll of the Irish Times. “At the time, I was out of favour with the London club scene. I was broke and on income support but the success was extraordinary.” Jamming in the studios at Real World, Peter Gabriel’s studios in Wiltshire, the diverse group of musicians recorded the basis of their first album in one week. This album, Volume 1: Sound Magic, was released by Real World Records in 1996 and marked the debut of the Afro Celt Sound System, an energetic global fusion the likes of which the music world had not yet seen.

The band recorded five studio albums over a nine year period, although the lines between who was a member of the band and who was a guest musician often blurred. Members of the Afro Celt Sound System have recorded and performed with the folk music ensemble founded by Simon Emmerson, The Imagined Village, alongside Martin Carthy, his daughter Eliza and Billy Bragg amongst others.

An album of remixes, Pod, was released between the fourth and fifth studio offerings, and a seventh album was released in 2010; Capture: 1995-2010 is a fine retrospective and is as good a place as any for a new listener to start.

I will take three tracks from that amazing first album; Saor (Free)/News From Nowhere as mentioned above, Dark Moon, High Tide which is the most Western sounding track on the album and House Of The Ancestors with its plaintive vocal.

The follow-up, Volume 2: Release, built on the first album with all tracks written by the band. There is the same evidence of the Celtic rhythms underpinned by African beats but there are more vocals. Big Cat definitely has a very African feel to it as the name evokes. The album was overshadowed by the death of keyboard player Jo Bruce (son of Jack Bruce) and it takes its name from a track given to Afro Celt Sound System by Sinéad O’Connor who sang a set of lyrics to a tune the band had to “release them from their grief”.

You can hear the influence of Peter Gabriel (see toppermost #187) on the third album, Volume 3: Further In Time; he sings on When You’re Falling. Certain production cues indicate his hand on the tiller in the background. Colossus is just that, a magnificent piece of music. The Silken Whip draws together a multitude of influences, not least Peter Gabriel himself. Robert Plant guests on Life Begins Again which itself has Eastern European flavours. At this point the core band comprised eight members from six different countries.

Seed, the title track of the fourth album, opens with rare electric guitar chords which continue behind a very African influenced melody and vocal, until the uilleann pipes kick in again. This is one of the few tracks with no obvious Celtic influence. The electric guitar gives it a dark, brooding feel. Ayub’s Song/As You Were is a perfect blend of what the Afro Celt Sound System does best. The band shortened their name to Afrocelts at this time but, after acknowledging this was an error, reverted to the full name.

Of the thirteen tracks on the fifth album, Pod, eleven are remixed tracks from the first three albums and, personally, I prefer the originals. There is a reason why tracks appear on an album in the form they do and in my experience, remixes rarely add to the originals.

Volume 5: Anatomic (2005) was the last album of new material to date and has some fine tracks on it. Our collection will complete with Beautiful Rain, one of the least African or Celtic tracks on any of the band’s recordings, and the magnificently evocative, Mojave.

In addition to the albums mentioned, Afro Celt Sound System have contributed to the original soundtracks to Gangs of New York and Hotel Rwanda.

The band are back on tour in 2014, including appearances at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and there may be a new studio album in the making. Keep an eye on all the right spaces.


Afro Celt Sound System official website

Afro Celt Sound System biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #289


  1. Andrew Shields
    Jun 1, 2014

    Ian, thanks for this great list… Will just add a quick plug for Iarla Ó Lionáird’s solo work, especially his excellent 2011 album, ‘Foxlight’.

  2. David Lewis
    Jun 1, 2014

    Fantastic stuff. I’ve long said that EDM and Hip hop are forms of folk music, with the same transmissions, lyrical themes and similar origins (poor and dispossessed, or oppressed). I’d heard of these guys, but not heard them, so thanks yet again Ian.

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