Celts get Afro beat
He may shy away from the tag, but Simon Emmerson is the chap who stirs the great big melting-pot that the Afro-Celt Sound System has slowly and unexpectedly become. With the two albums to date attracting half-a-million well-wishers keen to cheer what happens when you juggle African, Celtic and a dozen other sound sources, it's a vehicle which shows little sign of deceleration, especially now with a new third release and tour imminent. What began as an a one-off project initiated by Emmerson with sean-n≤s singer Iarla O'Lionaird, multi-instrumentalist James McNally and engineer Martin Russell has - literally - become an all-singing, all-dancing affair.
An eminently likeable character, Emmerson's background is as maverick as the fusion he now oversees. Spells with Green Gartside's arty-pop outfit, Scritti Politti, and Robert Wyatt's soul-jazz renegades, Working Week, led him to the early days of the acid jazz movement. "The only good thing was it made baldness fashionable," he now quips says of his role in that much maligned, goatee-stroking scene. DJ-ing followed included guest spots at the old McGonagles club in Dublin, before he moved on to producing the likes of Baaba Maal.
It was through that great west African singer that the initial Afro-Celt seeds were sown. "In was in Senegal and I heard Baaba's band play this ancient ancestral prayer," he recalls. "I thought it sounded familiar and my friend Mark who was with me said it sounded like an Irish air. And it did. When I got back, I got in touch with Davey Spillane via my lodger at the time Oisn Lunny (now of Firstborn, then of Marxman) and asked him if he would like to work with Baaba Maal. Davey recognised the tune but wasn't surprised by the fact that it was so familiar. He always thought there was a strong link between Irish traditional music and African music but it came as a complete revelation to me."
Fascinated he heard, Emmerson put together a group of musicians. James McNally arrived from north London Irish musical circles, CUl Aodha lad Iarla O'Lionaird came via a stray tape and two of Baaba Maal's musicians travelled on a plane from Senegal. Ex-Sex Pistols designer Jamie Reid inadvertently supplied the name and Peter Gabriel's Real World label provided a home for the debut album, Volume 1: Sound Magic.
"People thought I was mad when I touted the idea," Emmerson says. "At the time, I was out of favour with the London club scene. I was broke and on income support. I'd had a couple of lucrative years making music for TV and adverts but had stopped that work because it wasn't what I wanted to do and had got stuck into the Afro-Celts. The success was extraordinary." I felt completely vindicated. "Yet he required persuasion to consider the long-term. "I had anticipated a project with different producers - I thought volume 2 would be the Indo-Celts - but I never thought we'd get to three albums with a stable set of musicians touring the world. All credit to Iarla and James, because they convinced me that there was more to the Afro-Celts than a world music project or what I saw as a DJ concept. They wanted me to develop the idea and turn it into a permanent band, which is what happened because here I am six years later talking about a third album."
"Prior to the Afro-Celt record, I had worked with Baaba Maal on an album which was nominated for a Grammy, had received had great critical success, and he was selling out the Royal Albert Hall. But the album hadn't sold and his nine-piece band were on basically Third World subsistence wages. He had a very supportive record-label boss in Chris Blackwell, who was bankrolling the project. I thought we'd bankrupt ourselves and Real World. I just couldn't see the logic of sustaining the musicians, the crew and the infrastructure of the band. And, to be honest, I still can't." He laughs. (laughs)." I think it's remarkable that we have achieved what we have. The economics of the Afro-Celts are as interesting as the music or the aesthetics."
Emmerson is very aware that a band like the Afro-Celts by their very nature are also high maintenance in other ways. other than monetary. "Collective survival is very difficult. " he admits. "Musicians at the best of times are a very egotistical bunch. When musicians they come from a tradition of solo playing, you've got a group of soloists, people who are used to ploughing their own field, who are then told, 'Right, we are ploughing each other's field.'"
But when albums such as Volume 3: Further In Time result from such toil, he's not complaining. Besides featuring guest spots from Peter Gabriel and Robert Plant, it has lost much of the a far less Celtic sound, a direction Emmerson explains was deliberate. "On the first two records, the pendulum swung more towards the Celtic, London club side of the equation. For this one, I wanted to have more African vocals and input, I wanted to have more of the excitement you hear on those Fela Kuti percussive chants. I wanted to feature more of N'Faly (Kouyate) and Demba (Barry) than we'd done before."
Emmerson believes says theirs the music of the Afro-Celts is symptomatic of a new way of working. "In a way, what we do is similar to the original intentions of acid jazz: to create an environment in which to explore new forms of music. We're alone in that - because you have people like producer Bill Laswell in the US States or the Gotown Project in Paris mixing up tangos and beats, or an east European band like the Transylvanians who play punky gypsy tunes. I know it sounds weird but it works."