Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

September 09, 2010


An impressive and lovingly compiled collection that captures the essence of one of the most innovative and influential world and roots music groups of recent years.

Afro Celt Sound System


(Real World Records)

The extraordinary Afro Celt Sound System are well named. Their music is a unique blend of traditional Irish music, African percussion and other ethnic sounds plus programmed rhythms and beats. They blend folk, world and club/dance music into an infectious musical cocktail that sounds totally unforced and wholly organic.

It’s a formula that has proved enduringly popular making them a huge live draw at both folk and world music festivals. Signed to Peter Gabriel’s Real World record label the band are great favourites at the annual WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) Festival, currently held at Charlton Park near Malmesbury in Wiltshire.

I must admit, cocooned as I am in something of a jazz bubble, that the Afro Celts have rather passed me by until now. I’ve heard great reports of their live shows (from guest contributor Alistair Fields among others) and I have to say that the music on “Capture” comes as a most welcome surprise.

The origins of the band date back to 1991 and this double CD set compiled by band members James McNally and Martin Russell captures some of this extraordinary group’s best performances from the last fifteen years and spans their five studio albums. The core group currently consists of guitarist and founder Simon Emmerson, multi instrumentalist McNally, keyboard player and programmer/sound wizard Russell and Irish singer Iarla O’ Lionaird. Also playing a major role in the music represented on this collection are N’Faly Kouate (kora, balaphon, ngoma drums, vocals), Moussa Sisskho (djembe, talking drum), Emer Maycock (whistles, flutes, uillean pipes) plus on dhol Johnny Kalsi leader of the Dhol Foundation.

“Capture” is split into two distinct entities. CD1 subtitled “Verse” showcases the band’s songs, many of them featuring the voice and lyrics of O’Lionaird but elsewhere including the contributions of a succession of famous guest vocalists. Thus we hear Sinead O’ Connor on “Release”, one of the band’s early hits, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on “Life Begin Again” and label boss Peter Gabriel on “When You’re Falling”. Notable as these performances are it’s the band’s pan cultural “house style” that impresses most. Pipes and whistles integrate with African percussion as if it was the most natural thing in the world with the kora sounding remarkably similar to the Irish harp. All this is topped off with Russell’s sonic wizardry which blends Irish, African and Indian traditional instruments together with modern musical digital technology and does so seamlessly.

These qualities are heard to even better effect on “Chorus” which gathers together the group’s finest instrumental moments. Highlights here include “Dark Moon” and “Whirl-Y-Reel #2” which both appeared on the soundtrack of the film “Gangs Of New York”. However perhaps best of all is the atmospheric and epic ten minute opener “Mojave” which takes Irish traditional melodies and re-contextualises them on a grandiose, cinematic scale courtesy of modern musical technology. More than other item in the collection this piece seems to sum up the sheer breadth of the Afro Celt’s musical vision. 

Afro Celt Sound System are one of the biggest selling acts on the Real World label, second only to Peter Gabriel himself, and their success has spawned a slew of imitators as world and roots music has moved closer to the mainstream. However none have done the whole pan cultural approach quite as successfully as the Afro Celts. There is a definite chemistry within the band and the way they blend the traditional with the contemporary is masterful.

Eminently danceable as well as being consistently musically interesting it is little surprise that they are such a successful live act. The group doesn’t harbour any stars as such, but there is a strong group vision and a clear sense of purpose. If there’s a jazz equivalent to their approach it’s probably the musical globe trotting of the late, great Don Cherry. 

With twenty five tracks spread across two discs this splendid collection is too lengthy and too diverse for a full track by track analysis. However there is much to enjoy here from the powerful and distinctive contributions of the famous guests to the epic sweep of “Mojave”. Occasionally things stray towards the bland and towards its closing stages the instrumental disc can begin to flag a little. Nevertheless this is an impressive and lovingly compiled collection that captures the essence of one of the most innovative and influential world and roots music groups of recent years. Established fans may have much of this material already but for newcomers to the group, such as myself, “Capture” represents a great place to begin a belated acquaintance.

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