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Afro-Celt Sound System - One Step Forward To Go One Step Back
Donnacha DeLong spoke to James McNally and Joe Bruce of musical fusion collective the Afro-Celt Sound System just before they went Weekending in Waterford.

afro-celt sound system The Afro-Celt Sound System are unlike any other group around. They have created a contemporary sound that spans the centuries by bringing together musicians with a wide range of musical backgrounds. Similar in spirit to bands like Dead Can Dance, the Afro-Celts have fused music from different traditions in a way that's never been done exactly the same before, crossing musical barriers and appealing to a wide range of music fans.

The collective of musicians have come together, combining ethnic Irish and African musics with modern dance elements, to create something new that's more than just a sum of its parts. The concept of the band is based on a theory that the Celts passed through North Africa before coming to Europe - leading to the existence of black Celts.

To the band, the idea of fusing African and Celtic traditions is not unusual, because they are variations on the same thing. They have drawn attention to the similarly between the African string instrument the kora and the harp, and between the bodhran and the tama (talking drum). Also, the African oral and magical tradition of the Griot is very like that of the Celtic Druids.

This is something many of those connected with the band know a lot about. The Sengalese musicians, Kauwding and Masamba, are both Griots, while harpist Mydhrin is a Breton druid. Both producer Simon Emerson and artist Jamie Reid grew up surrounded by the druidic tradition.

The different spiritual beliefs have affected their music, James said that the different musicians drew their music from the roots of their beliefs. However, instead of sitting around having theological discussions, most of them would rather go to the pub. "The music is more of a shared identity. It was great playing with Sengalese musicians, we are a celebration of shaking hands, of crossing borders. That's the most important thing for us, to bring people of different traditions together."

[image: the collective] The band have a strong visual element to complement their music. Jamie Reid's paintings were very influential in the formation of the band and his work adorns the cover of "Volume I - Sound Magic" as well as their stage set. This visual element gives them an ethnic multi-media aspect. Joe eplained the importance of this. "When you don't share a language, you need to find some way to communicate. That's what multi-media is all about, communication regardless of language differences."

Jamie's previous work is very famous, or rather infamous. He was the graphic artist responsible for the Sex pistols record sleeves and is best known for sticking a pin through the Queen's nose. Both he and Simon Emerson are remnants of the British punk scene. James said that the band's music is influenced by the punk ethic and he hopes that their mixing of styles, new and old, can cause some kind of revolution in music.

In many ways, they have succeeded in bringing about that revolution. "We seem to be breaking down barriers in traditional music, introducing it to people who might not necessarily have listened to it. When we played the Whirl-Y-Gigs, dance fans came along to hear the dance music. But, when we stopped the dance beats and the musicians played, they all got into that. It's the same with trad fans, they're being introduced to African and dance music and vice versa. The Prodigy, Orbital and the Grid are queuing up to remix us,". explained James.

"The reaction from traditional music purists has been more sceptical than negative and that's only 'till they see us live. Then they realise that it's a genuine mix. I've been in other bands, like the Pogues, who've been accused of damaging the traditions. But, that's not what we're doing, we're creating new music."

Joe said that recording in Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios was an amazing opportunity. "We were surrounded by people from all over the world. There was a danger that we'd lose focus with so much going on around us, but we'd played a gig just before. That helped us keep things together."

[image: circle]There was also the danger that with so many professionals together, egos would smash the band. James, however, was surprised by what did happen. "The whole thing came about by accident. People with totally different lives came together and no one person stood out in the writing. Hats off to Simon Emerson, he allowed everyone to come out with their own ideas. He let each one of us express ourselves individually."

Joe said that originally the Sound System was just a project. "We were so amazed by what came out, we had to start a band. Now we want to go back and make a new album. We're really happy with the current one, but Volume II will show how we're continually evolving. We want to go for dancier remixes, a trancier sound. And the dynamic is there to do it."

The Afro-Celts are currently the most successful band experimenting with traditional music. Joe hopes their success will encourage other band to do the same kind of things. They are in no way afraid of imitation, "We don't hold any monopoly on the music."
Afro Celt Sound System - Volume 2: Release
Afro-Celt Sound System - The Olympia Theatre, 28th July, 1997

by Donnacha DeLong