What do you get when you cross Celtic melodies with African and Indian rhythms, and dance music?
I'm not an expert on world music. In fact I don't own any albums that could be said to be World Music except for those released by the Afro Celts. I can't identify half of the instruments they use - I can't, for instance, tell a bhodran from a djembe by ear. I have no idea what a balaphon or a n'goma actually are
. As for even pronouncing the names of the band members, you can forget it. But the point is, none of that matters. This is world music at its most readily accessible, and perhaps its most vibrant.
Taking the bold step of mixing modern synthesizers with Celtic melodies and African/Indian rhythms, the Afro Celt Sound System have become the closest thing the World Music scene has to superstars.
For completeness and so that you can marvel over the strange words, here's the current lineup:
Simon Emmerson (guitar, producing)
N'Faly Kouyate (kora, balaphon, n'goma, vocals)
Moussa Sissokho (djembe, talking drum)
James McNally (BodhrŠn, accordion, whistle)
Johnny Kalsi (the Dhol drum)
Iarla ” LionŠird (vocals)
Emer Maycock (tin whistle, flute, uillean pipes)
Martin Russell (keyboards, producing, engineering, programming)
Though this should not be treated as set in stone, as session musicians and band members come and go pretty much as needed, bringing other instruments and styles to the mix.
1. Saor/Free/News from Nowhere
Ambient synths and harmonically rich indian drums come together with calm harp glissandos to paint an incredibly soothing air, before a melancholy Celtic melody begins to soar over it. When the rest of the band eventually come back in, the slow percussion and melodies thicken to a slightly more lively, but equally relaxed sound. This is a song that can't fail to chill you out.
2. Whirl-Y-Reel 1
A much livelier start than Saor, this high tempo number puts together lots of individually relatively simple lines to make a complex, vibrant whole. The harp takes a melodic lead at first, but the torch is passed round almost the whole band, without ever loving the vibrant intensity and upbeat feel.
A more Indian melody on this one, with a deep ambient synth and for the first time on the album, vocals. Percussive rhythms keep the song moving, while the expressive Indian styled vocals provide the melodic side. This song has an epic feel without being overly long, or overly loud. In fact, nicely chilled.
4. Sure as Knot
People just can't resist wordplay, can they?
The Endless Knot is a very common symbol and theme in both Buddhist and Celtic artwork, in both cases symbolising eternity. A relaxed number, building slowly from world music to dance music, as eventually most of the world aspects peel away to leave a bass synth and programmed drums, with harp somewhere in the distant background. Being able to make that transition without losing any of the vibe they'd built up is no mean feat.
5. Nu Cead Againn Dul Abaile / We Cannot Go Home
One of the more mournful numbers on the album, sad vocals are underpinned by rapid acoustic guitar work, strange ambient noises, and relatively simple percussion, up until about about half way through, when digital drums kick in and the bassline becomes more active - the pace remains slow, and the acoustic guitar keeps trilling, but the air becomes considerably mode decisive - less feeling sorry for oneself, and more resolved to do something about it.
6. Dark Noon, High Tide
Instrumental World Music doesn't lend itself to strong single sales, but if it did this would probably be the one to back. Accessible at a mere four minutes twelve, and with a memorable and catchy celtic inspired melody over fairly complex but still laid back percussion, the song is an atmospheric one. It's easy to see the tourist boards of Celtic countries picking this as a soundtrack to their adverts. In fact I'm not sure they haven't. One of my favourites.
7. Whirl-Y-Reel 2
Dispelling the atmospheric sounds of Dark Noon almost instantly, the second part of Whirl-Y-Reel is more uptempo and cheerfurl, harmonic drums and a driving bassline underpinning a dance rhythm, padded synths and a catchy celtic rhythm. The breakdown at the bridge throws away all melody for a driving rhythmic feel, before driving right back to the celtic melodic instruments.
8. House of the Ancestors
Percussion dominates this one right from the start, a relaxed celtic vocal and instrumental melody, developing slowly over the length of the eight minutes, ending with subtly melodic choral effects over the core percussion, and finally building over a droning effect, and some simple acoustic fingerpicking.
9. Eistigh Liomsa Sealad/Listen to me/Saor Reprise
An almost Arabian influence to this one, with rapid fingerpicking, thick ambient synths and powerfully melodic vocals, singing in what sounds like an Indian style, but with celtic lyrics, and the occasional celtic twinge. This track takes its time, building slowly over the course of almost 11 minutes, with the ambient synth thickening and percussion starting to break through in places. A mournful celtic melody is introduced, and slowly everything else dies away, ending the album with a a melancholy solo.
Folk music styles from different parts of the world have very strong and very different traditions - entirely different takes on the concept of music, often using completely different tuning systems, scales, even note intervals. Some barely use notes at all, concentration almost purely on rhythm. Some use harmonies that would seem discordant to ther cultures. That the Afro Celt Sound System can so skillfully knit together different approaches to music says a lot about music as a truly global language.