Afro Celt Sound System,
Volume 1: Sound Magic
(Real World/Virgin, 1996)

The use of African rhythms in Celtic music has been done before. But a true merger of Celtic and African styles ... that, I think, is something new. Certainly the Afro Celt Sound System has managed to bring the two worlds together with a freshness and creativity which defies description.

The Afro Celt Sound System isn't a band so much as a cooperative of musicians intrigued by an idea. United under the umbrella of Peter Gabriel's Real World label, nearly two dozen musicians added their personal touch to make the idea a reality.

The initial product of their joining is Volume 1: Sound Magic. It cannot be described as Celtic or African in nature; yet, both styles are evident in spades. Sound Magic is a true union of two completely dissimilar musical genres.

Imagine Irish jigs and reels powered by a heavy jungle beat, African jazz supported by Irish pipes, whistles and fiddles, songs of prayer combined with high-kicking dance tunes, delicate harp melodies with synthesized accents -- all linked together by driving African percussion and an electric rock sensibility. That's the Afro Celt Sound System, but it doesn't begin to cover their sound.

Putting this all together is an amazing gathering of performers. Among them: Ronan Browne on uilleann pipes, wood flutes, mandolin and harmonium; Jo Bruce on keyboards, drum and programming; James McNally (from the Pogues) on low whistle, bodhran and accordion; and Martin Russell on keyboards and programming. Sean nos singer Iarla O'Lionaird provides English and Gaelic vocals on several tunes. And playing on all (or nearly all) of the album's nine tracks are Kauwding Cissokho on kora, Masamba Diop on talking drums, Myrdhin on Celtic harp, and producer Simon Emmerson on guitars, keyboard programming and drums.

Famed ulleann piper Davy Spillane joins the group for four tracks, adding pipes to all four and low whistles to two. Caroline Lavelle, a cellist lately paired with Loreena McKennitt, adds her own string sound to "Eistigh Liomsa Sealad/Listen to Me." The members of Shooglenifty (Iain Macleod on mandolin, James Mackintosh on bongos, Gary Finlayson on banjo, Angus R. Grant on fiddle and Malcolm Crosbie on guitar) add their own Celtic/jazz flair on a couple of tracks as well.

Making brief appearances are Simon Edwards on sintar, John Fortis on electric bass and keyboard, Levon Minassian on doudouk, Ayub Ogada on vocals and nyatiti, Jocelyn Pook on viola and Zil providing a vocal drone. A lengthy list of credits, yes -- but each is worthy of note.

The outstanding track on an outstanding album is "Dark Moon, High Tide," featuring a lively pipe duet between Spillane and Browne and a soaring low whistle solo by Spillane. The African rhythms, heavily influenced by the Irish bodhran rhythm styles, makes keeping one's feet still an impossibility -- this is one I'd love to see performed live with a cadre of stepdancers. The opening track, "Saor/Free," is one of the best examples of the band's cultural union, with sweeping instrumentation working together like a well-oiled machine. O'Lionaird's singing also deserves mention. The emotive sean nos style of Ireland is loved by some, hated by others, but I think even the most ardent critic will find a few good things to say about his performance here. He adds wonderful atmosphere to the lush, pulsating "Sure-As-Not/Sure-As-Knot" and the mournful "Eistigh Liomsa Sealad/Listen to Me" (followed by Browne on a weeping uilleann pipe), and the combination of O'Lionaird with Kenyan singer Ogada on "Nil Cead Againn Dul Abhaile/We Cannot Go Home" produces an intoxicating mix. Probably his best moment is on "Inion/Daughter," a North African call to prayer enhanced by the Irish pipe, whistle and accordion. "House of the Ancestors" begins with a solo pipe (Spillane) over African drum sequences before O'Lionaird and Ogada both add their special vocal touches.

The Afro Celt Sound System, if you haven't heard them before, deserves a treasured spot in your music collection.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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