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Members include Massamba Diop, drum programming; Simon Emmerson, guitars; Johnny Kalsi, dhol drum, tabla; N'Faly Kouyate, vocals, kora (harp-lute), balafon; Emer Maycock, uilleann pipes; James McNally, keyboards, piano, bodhran, bamboo flute; Myrdhin, harp; Iarla O'Lionaird, vocals; Martin Russell, keyboards, programming, co-production; Moussa Sissokho, percussion. Addresses: Record company--Real World Records, Mill Lane, Box, Corsham, Wiltshire SN13 8PL, England, website: http://www.realworldrecords.com. Website--Afro Celts Official Website: http://www.realworldrecords.com/afrocelts.

When the Afro Celts, originally known as the Afro Celt Sound System, emerged in the mid-1990s with a ground-breaking blend of traditional Irish and West African music with modern dance beats, listeners witnessed the birth of a new sound. The ten-member collective--which includes musicians on a wide range of traditional instruments from Ireland and Africa--has become a crowd-pleasing mainstay at World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festivals around the world. Core members include guitarist and bandleader Simon Emmerson, multi-instrumentalist James McNally, and traditional Irish vocalist Iarla O'Lionaird. The Afro Celts' 2003 release, Seed, found the group relying less on programmed electronic beats and more on instrumentation for a fresh, rich sound.

The inspiration behind the Afro Celts dates back to 1991, when Simon Emmerson, a Grammy-nominated British producer who would become the group's guitarist, collaborated with Afro-pop star Baaba Maal. While making an album with Maal in Senegal, Emmerson was struck by the similarity between one 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 that would prove successful, Emmerson 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," Emmerson 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, musician Peter Gabriel's recording facilities in Wiltshire, England, the diverse group of musicians cut an 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.

"Prior to that first album being made, none of us knew if it would work," musician James McNally told Larry Katz of the Boston Herald. "We were strangers who didn't even speak the same language. But we were bowled over by this communication that took place beyond language." McNally, who grew up second-generation Irish in London, played keyboards, piano, bodhran, and bamboo flute.

Despite the group's modest expectations for its first album, Sound Magic sold a respectable 250,000 copies. Performing at festivals, raves, and dance clubs, the band met with enthusiastic audiences. Encouraged by the response, the Afro Celt Sound System prepared for a sophomore album. The band had grown to include two more African musicians, Moussa Sissokho on talking drums and N'Faly Kouyate on vocals, kora, and balafon.

Just as the second album was getting off the ground, one of the group's core musicians, 27-year-old keyboardist Jo Bruce (son of Cream bass player Jack Bruce), died suddenly of an asthma attack. The band was devastated, and the album was put on hold. Then Irish pop star Sinead O'Connor came to the rescue, collaborating with the band and helping them cope with their loss. "[O'Connor] blew into the studio on a windy November night and blew away again leaving us something incredibly emotional and powerful," McNally told Katz. "We had this track we didn't know what to do with. Sinead scribbled a few lyrics and bang! She left us completely choked up." So taken was the band with O'Connor's song, "Release," that they used the name for the title of their album. Volume 2: Release hit the music stores in 1999, and by the spring of 2000 it had sold more than half a million copies worldwide.

By then the Afro Celt Sound System was in demand as a live band that not only made people dance but also connected with audiences around the world. In 2000 the group was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best World Music category. The band, composed at the time of eight members from six countries (England, Senegal, Guinea, Ireland, France, and Kenya), took pride in its ability to bring people together through music. "We can communicate anywhere at any corner of the planet and feel that we're at home," McNally told Patrick MacDonald of the Seattle Times. "We're breaking down categories of world music and rock music and black music. We leave a door open to communicate with each other's traditions. And it's changed our lives."

In 2001 the group released Volume 3: Further in Time, which climbed to number one on Billboard's Top World Music Albums chart. Featuring guest spots by Peter Gabriel and Robert Plant, the album also incorporated a heightened African sound. "On the first two records, the pendulum swung more toward the Celtic, London club side of the equation," Emmerson told the Irish Times's Carroll. "For this one, I wanted to have more African vocals and input … than we'd done before." Again the Afro Celt Sound System met with success. Chuck Taylor of Billboard magazine praised the album as "a cultural phenomenon that bursts past the traditional boundaries of contemporary music." The single "When You're Falling," with lyrics by Gabriel, became a radio hit in the United States.

The group then truncated its name, calling itself simply the Afro Celts for its fourth album, Seed, released in 2003. "We didn't start the album intending to drop the sound system," Emmerson said in a release posted on the Real World Records website. "But it became apparent as we made the record that we're NOT a sound system any more. We've developed a very defined sound which has come from us playing together. It's not about a DJ and programmes and samples. It's taken a long time. But we've finally become a band."

With Seed, the group developed a sound that arose organically out of instrumentation, and from seven years of performing live and collaborating as musicians. The band chose the name "Seed" because the album felt like a new beginning. "We've got great musicians in this band," vocalist Iarla O'Lionaird said, on the Real World Records website. "In the past we were relying too much on machines. On this album we learned to trust ourselves." The album also relies less on celebrity guest spots, with no big-name input from the likes of O'Connor and Gabriel. Instead, the band brought in new global elements, including Brazilian vocalist Nina Miranda and Canadian flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook, for some dynamic variations on the signature Afro Celt sound.

by Wendy Kagan

Afro Celts's Career

Group formed in London, England, 1996; released Volume 1: Sound Magic, 1996; became a mainstay at festivals, raves, and dance clubs, late 1990s; released Volume 2: Release, 1999; released Volume 3: Further in Time, 2001; released Seed, 2003.

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Lyrics to persistance of memory