To quote a voice sample from one of Simon Emmerson’s less well known projects (The Outernationalists, Ethnomixicology) – “it all started, in Africa”. It was while recording with Baaba Maal in Senegal that Simon first became fascinated by similarities between some African and Irish melodies. That inspiration would take five years to bear fruit, and in 1996 he brought together a disparate group of musicians from around the U.K. and Africa to Real World Studios, and Afro Celt Sound System were born. More than ten years since their last studio album (Anatomic), Afro Celt Sound System are back with a new release, The Source. It’s an album that packs just as many surprises as that inspired and eclectic beginning twenty years ago, and sees Simon Emmerson unite Afro Celts regulars with artists from those first Real World sessions, and some of the most creative figures from the ever-changing face of tradition based music in the UK.
Opening the album in familiar style, Calling in the Horses sees N’Faly Kouyate lead a chorus of Guinean voices (Les Griottes). Uilleann pipes and low whistle howl a response, and a strum of desert blues takes us straight into Beware Soul Brother. It’s here, in a tribute to Nigerian poet Chinua Achebe, that the first of the new voices to the Afro Celts mix appears, Armagh singer and flautist, Rioghnach Connolly. Primal pipes and plaintive whistle continue while Rioghnach breathes a slow, mournful melody.
It’s a typically sensual, hypnotic Afro Celts opening, but it isn’t long before the Sound System opens wide and The Magnificent Seven brings African voices, Dhol drummers, Irish whistles and mandolin together. With guitar and uilleann pipes the sound grows, the beat intensifies to fill the senses, and the imagination.
Rioghnach’s earthy vocal is a welcome addition to the mix; it fits perfectly with the familiarity of N’Faly Kouyate’s voice and kora, Emmerson’s eclectic guitar work, Johnny Kalsi’s epic dhol beats and inpisred atmospheres from Mass and Dave Botterill. Old friends from those first Real World sessions are here too – Ronan Browne and Davy Spillane on uilleann pipes and whistles, with strings and percussion from Shooglenifty stalwarts Angus R Grant, James Mackintosh, Garry Finlayson and Ewan MacPherson.
There are more new names to add to the collective, and the most prominent of those appears in Cascade. Opening with N’Faly Kouyate’s declaimed vocal over a jangle of guitars and balafon; tumbling uilleann pipe and whistle riffs lead to the astounding break-neck puirt à beul of Griogair Labhruidh. It’s hypnotic, it’s soul stirring, it’s exciting; and the Gaelic rap that follows takes the music to an even higher level. Griogair, Gaelic singer, rapper and multi-instrumentalist; has brought a thrilling new dimension to the sound, and his stage presence on the handful of live sets the band have played this year has been a major factor in the unique atmosphere. Another high point of those live sets is Honey Bee, when Rioghnach plays an irresistible flute jig over a guitar/balafon stomp as her bluesy, sultry, intoxicating vocal seduces the senses. Also covering new ground is a haunting spoken word track, Child of Wonder. Pàl Ó Siadhail reads from his forthcoming book, Wonder and the Medicine Wheels, beside kora, harp and flutes; with a beat as mesmerising as the story.
If any track on this album can stand out, though, it’s A Higher Love. Beginning with one of N’Faly Kouyate’s wistful celebrations of African vocal, Griogair opens a psalm book to amazing effect. Gaelic psalm singing is an awesome sound in the right hands and, as Martyn Bennett proved, can be even more enthralling in a contemporary setting. N’Faly Kouyate’s vocal continues to more mouth music, psalm snatches and a Gaelic rap that raises goosebumps. Introduce some big, hearty brass sounds with Shooglenifty strings on top and you have all the reasons Afro Celt Sound System continue to enjoy such an enthusiastic following.
Of course, it’s not all big drums, frantic pipes and club beats. Afro Celt Sound System can chill with the best of them. Where Two Rivers Meet brings a change of pace, with light kora, and deep, unhurried bohdran from Robbie Harris. The leisurely outing continues with Lucy Doonan’s gorgeous, soft Gaelic vocal and Griogair’s jazz-inspired exploration of highland pipes. Just as some, perhaps unsuitable, Pink Floyd associations come to mind; those pipes become a wee bit excitable about five minutes in until a mix of Irish and African strings tempers the pace – held perfectly throughout by Ged Lynch on percussion. All in all, it’s a mesmerising ten minutes.
The smooth pace continues with the kora opening of Mansani Cisse. N’Faly Kouyate sings a favourite, older West African song alongside a flurry of flutes and strings. Here we see the perfect blend of Celtic and African at it’s most literal, with Seána Davey’s harp in duet with the kora as the song seamlessly blends into the Gaelic strains of Tàladh, and resolves into a simply beautiful vocal duet between N’Faly Kouyate and Griogair/Lucy Doogan. Similarly perfectly blended is The Soul of a Sister, with balafon and Les Griottes in a gently swaying chant while N’Faly Kouyate exhibits his staggering vocal range. Then the sweetest of key changes takes us to another Gaelic waulking song and the two unite in a truly uplifting sound.
Desert Billy is a more immediate and funky experience, with Johnny Kalsi and Shooglenifty strings to the fore. This track swings with a barely subdued sense of fun and leads to the equally danceable The Communicator – a feast of Bamako club beats, kora and big brass. The celebratory sound of fireworks that heralds the album’s closing track, Kalsi Breakbeat, is entirely appropriate – there have been fireworks all through the album. When Shooglenifty’s strings, Mass effects, and Johnny Kalsi’s Dhol Drummers join forces you can expect the fireworks to be spectacular.
Under Simon Emmerson’s direction, and wide ranging abilities on guitars and cittern, the familiar core of Afro Celt Sound System have made a thoroughly welcome return to the scene. N’Faly Kouyate’s kora, balafon and astounding vocals bring African tradition alongside Johnny Kalsi’s infectious bangara beats. Add the all-encompassing programming and mixing skills of Mass and Dave Botterill and we have this most eclectic of bands in all their glory. There are no shortage of surprises thanks to the host of collaborators. In the live shows, Griogair also doubles up on guitars, Jaws harp, low whistle, highland pipes and uilleann pipes – he’s proved himself to be an Afro Celt at heart – right down to his roots, you might say.
Robbie Harris plays the bodhran from the depth of his soul and with seemingly infinite possibilities, while Moussa Sissoko supplies African rhythms from talking drums and djembe. Rioghnach Connolly brings a voice that’s as gritty and bluesy as any you could hope to hear, but also plays a flute with the grace of an Irish faerie queen. The trio of uilleann pipe players, Davy Spillane, Ronan Browne and Emer Mayock provide everything from ethereal wails to soothing woodwind. Les Griottes, a 5 strong female griot vocal group from N’Faly’s homeland, contribute those haunting African voices, and the equally evocative Celtic response comes from Gaelic choral ensemble, Urar.
The album was mixed from sessions recorded all around Europe and the U.K. and the cast of contributors is far wider than I’ve been able to cover within the limits of a review. The Source is sure to have instant appeal for long term fans of Afro Celt Sound System. The pan-continental beats and musical traditions that have always been their hallmark are there in abundance. The host of new collaborators bring new life to the music too, and will undoubtedly go a long way to expand the band’s audience. Afro Celt Sound System will be bringing The Source to festival audiences throughout the summer, I can guarantee it’s a unique and unmissable spectacle, every bit as energetic and captivating as this album.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
JULY / AUGUST
15 July – Larmer Tree Festival
18 July – Milton Keynes International Festival
24 July – Folk by the Oak
30 July – Cambridge Folk Festival
05 August – Dranouter Festival, Belgium
12 August – Boomtown Festival
13 August – Lakefest
19 August – Beautiful Days
02 September – Helsinki Festival, Finland
The Source Album Tour 2016
26 BURY ST EDMUNDS The Apex
27 NORWICH The Open
28 BRISTOL Colston Hall
29 OXFORD o2 Academy
30 LONDON Barbican
01 MANCHESTER RNCM
02 NEWCASTLE Riverside
03 EDINBURGH Queens Hall
04 SHREWSBURY Walker Theatre
05 SHEFFIELD The Leadmill
07 BIRMINGHAM Town Hall
08 COLCHESTER Arts Centre
09 YEOVIL Octagon Theatre
10 PORTSMOUTH Wedgewood Rooms
11 BUXTON Opera House
12 EXETER Phoenix
13 BRIGHTON Concorde 2
More details and ticket links here: www.afroceltsoundsystem.org.uk