Afro Celt Sound System,
Capture 1995-2010
(Realworld, 2010)

Peter Gabriel's Realworld Records has given the world a plethora of world music gems -- with everything from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to the Blind Boys of Alabama given a helping hand by the ex-Genesis man's stable. One of the label's greatest successes has been the Afro Celt Sound System. Fusing Irish traditional music, African rhythms and an electronic groove, the Afro Celts trade in a unique blend of the rollicking and the sublime.

Built around the instrumental core of Simon Emmerson, James McNally and Martin Russell (all of whom play an extensive variety of instruments) and the ethereal vocals of Irish sean nos singer Iarla O'Lionaird, the group is augmented by a number of other musicians (N'faly Kouyate, Emer Mayock, Moussa Sissokho, Demba Barry and Johnny Kalsi). On top of this, they have a special talent for collaborations and Capture 1995-2010, a new two-disc career overview, features tracks with Sinead O'Connor, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Dorothee Munyaneza, Mundy and Eileen Ivers, among others.

Capture comprises 25 tracks and is split between two CDs. The first, Verse, features songs; while the second, Chorus is made up of instrumental tracks. Individually, the discs are strong. Together they display an incredible music-making unit, filled with ambition, intelligence and soul. The Afro Celts are not just a great idea, they are a cracking outfit.

Of the songs, "Release" is a beautifully jaunting piece of work. A plaintive vocal from Sinead O'Connor and a pleading lyric make this one of the most pleasing things on the record. "When You're Falling" (with label boss Gabriel) is a another cracker. Gabriel's voice suits the music of the Afro Celts so well, it's a pity he doesn't work with the guys a lot more.

The jewel of the songs, however, is "Rise Above It." Irish singer-songwriter Mundy belts out a strong song, but a quarter of the way in, all hell breaks loose with African rhythms and vocals kicking in. All of this comes atop of a blend of acoustic and electronic music, underpinned by the majestic fiddle of Eileen Ivers. The song is uplifting, powerful and perfectly crafted. Exquisite.

On the instrumental disc, opener "Mojave" is quintessential Afro Celts. While the disc is termed "instrumental," the tracks on it do feature the voice of O'Lionaird. They do not lie, however, because O'Lionaird's voice is an instrument. And he knows how to use. Boy, does he.

O'Lionaird was an established Irish sean nos singer prior to his involvement with the Afro Celts, and he uses that craft to great effect with his multicultural mates. "Whirl-Y-Gig" showcases the amazing gifts of James McNally and is rambunctiously rollicking. "Dark of the Moon" (used in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York) is a slower groove, featuring the nip and tuck of African and Celtic airs, with haunting, atmospheric effect.

The Afro Celt Sound System evoke a sense of National Geographic photography, bringing to mind beautiful and different exotic landscapes. They have the ability to sum up the human race in a seven-minute track, and that's some feat.

Here's to the next 15 years, boys!

music review by
Sean Walsh

16 October 2010

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