The Afro Celt Sound System burst onto the scene in 1995 with a truly unique musical approach that blends acoustic instrumentation and vocals from the African and Irish traditions with cutting edge beats and atmospherics. This trail-blazing collective creates beautiful, living performances that perfectly balance man and machine, and their live shows are a wonder to behold.
In honor of the band’s 10-year anniversary, here is a brief primer on all things Afro Celt, plus a few detours into related musical territory.
Volume 5: Anatomic is the band’s most recent album, and by many accounts their most cohesive to date. Highlights include "Mojave" and two tracks in collaboration with Dorothee Munyaneza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide (Munyaneza first collaborated with the band on the Hotel Rwanda soundtrack).
2004 saw the release of the remix project Pod (Bonus DVD), which includes dramatic re-workings of several earlier songs by the band members themselves. Be sure to check out “Whirly3,” which is patterned after ACSS’s live performances.
For the 2003 album Seed, the band took a break from the “Sound System” moniker in an effort to focus attention on acoustic performances and songcraft. There is still plenty of electronic wizardry to go around, though, particularly on the atmospheric “Rise Above It.”
2001’s Volume 3: Further in Time features the radio hit “When You’re Falling” with vocals by Peter Gabriel, as well as guest performances from Robert Plant, Altan, and many more. The African element of the band gets a great workout here on tracks like “Shadowman” and “Onwards.”
The Afro Celts were riding high on the massive success of their first album when original member Jo Bruce died tragically and unexpectedly of an asthma attack. As a result, 1999’s Vol. 2: Release takes on a darker and yet somehow uplifting tone.
The band’s debut recording, Volume 1: Sound Magic, was released in 1996 to wild popular and critical acclaim. A collaborative effort captured during Peter Gabriel’s Realworld Recording Week, this album features some of vocalist Iarla O’Lionaird’s most ethereal and spiritual invocations, particularly on “Inion/Daughter” and the stunning “Eistigh Liomsa Sealad/Listen to Me.”
As of this writing, plans for a single from ANATOMIC are still in the works. In the meantime, the following selections may be of interest:
When You're Falling: This import single features a radio edit, the album version, a remix by Wren & Morley, and the video for the song.
Release Remixes: This US-only single features 10 mixes of “Release” and runs over 70 minutes, but in reality, the meandering and sometimes over-long mixes do not do justice to the original track.
Release: This import single is actually preferable to the gratuitous US version, focusing on only two of the better remixes of the track and adding a music video for good measure.
Not available on amazon.com, but generally available on the secondary market, are CD singles for “Whirly Reel 1” and “Sure-As-Not” from SOUND MAGIC, as well as “Life Begin Again” [promo only] from FURTHER IN TIME and “Rise Above It” [promo only] from SEED.
There are a number of great projects available from core members of the Afro Celt Sound System. Here are just a few:
Simon Emmerson (guitars, bouzouki, programming, etc.) and Martin Russell (keyboards, programming, engineering) have produced a number of world-class recordings for other artists. Most notable is Firin' in Fouta by Senegalese musician Baaba Maal – this album featured uilleann pipes alongside Maal’s African musicians and proved to be the spark that ignited the ACSS fire. Emmerson and Russell also produced tracks on Maal’s 1998 album Nomad Soul, including the very “Afro Celtish” Souka Nayo: I Will Follow You, which was released as a single complete with several cool remixes. Emmerson alsoproduced the Afro-pop classic Journey by Somalian refugee Maryam Mursal, as well as New Dawn by Mursal’s traditional band, Waaberi. Finally, the Emmerson-produced Polysonik album by Manu Dibango is the source of the “Yekey Tenge” sample heard on “North,” from the band’s own FURTHER IN TIME.
James McNally (whistles, keyboards, bodhran, programming, accordian, harmonium, guitar, etc.) is a multi-instrumentalist who released a solo album in 1996 called Everybreath. He was also a key contributor to the Pogues album Pogue Mahone.
Johnny Kalsi (dhol drums, tabla, percussion) has released two albums with his band Dhol Foundation, including Big Drum: Small World and “Drumbelievable” (which, sadly, is not available through amazon.com).
Finally, here are a few musical selections from the diverse range of artists that have appeared as guests on ACSS albums.
Peter Gabriel provided vocals and keyboards on “When You’re Falling” from FURTHER IN TIME. In turn, his own excellent REALWORLD: Ovo: The Millennium Show contains contributions from Iarla O’Lionaird, Johnny Kalsi, and several other Afro Celts.
Austrian singer/songwriter Pina performed a beautiful duet with Iarla O’Lionaird on FURTHER IN TIME. Her first solo album is called Quick Look.