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
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
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."
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."
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."
by Donnacha DeLong