London in the 80’s / WOMAD / Whirl-y Gig / West African Music / Multiculturalism
When I was ruffly 16 years old, I listened for the first time to a global fusion album. This album was Release by Afro Celt Sound System. The album boasts multi-culturalism, with Scottish bagpipes, traditional Irish flutes, fiddles, Indian rhythms, West African Kora… to name but a few, all fused with infectious unstoppable electronic dance beats.
This album changed my life. I had never before danced to anything non-western in sound. Nor had I heard fusions from the global North to South. I had also never previously heard the bagpipes sound funky.
Afro Celt Sound-System as the name might suggest fuse traditional Western folk instruments with West African instruments and merge the whole thing into the electronic dance scene. Formed in 1995 the Afro Celt band consists of mystro musicians in their own right.
In this interview I talk to Simon Emmerson, a prevalent figure in the changing musical trends in London since the 70’s, Larla O Lionáird of the Irish influences, and N’Fale Kouyate, the West African griot Kora player. Together in a cosy yurt at WOMAD Festival 2017, we spoke through the changing trends in music, the global Norths relation to African music and the London music scene through the ages….
WOMAD 2017 Saturday, BBC Radio 3 Charlie Gillett Stage, 8:15 - 9:30pm
Speaking with : Simon Emmerson, Larla O Lionairde, N’Fale Kouyate, (Johnny Kalsi)
I was overwhelmed to be given the opportunity to talk to Afro-Celt Sound System, as a long time lover of their fantastic fusion of traditional folk musics of the global north, with traditional folk musics of the global south, the incredibly versatile fusion dance music has had me dancing for years.
I wanted to try and map out the various influences in Afro-Celts vast discography of music spanning from their first album release ‘Volume 1: Sound Magic’ (1996). Having since spanned a further nine albums, the endless array of incredible sounds from one album to the next is truly worthy of the term musical ‘melting pot’.
I started by asking the guys where the Irish Celtic influences came from within the band….
Larla: well it comes from Simon meeting Davy Spillane from County Clare in Ireland and they met over Baba Mal records, and that was where the initial content was, and ever since then there’s been a array of performers and singers who, also some Scottish musicians, so theres a big heavy influence and I joined the band a few years ago and I have been playing the Irish flutes and bohdrán.
SD: Im studying ethnomusicology in SOAS and I just love it, so can I ask, how did it all come together, with the Scottish the Irish, I know the West African and Indian rhythms too?
Simon: Yeah I mean we use Bhangra grooves, Dub grooves, yeah it's a melting pot.
SD: How are the songs constructed? Is it all the work of one genius conductor?
Larla/N’Fale: Ahh Simon, Simon is the clever guy
Simon: Ok so I never wanted to be a virtuoso musician. I started of as a punk, my primary agenda was probably as an activist, but then over the years, you get a little bit older, and then music has become a big part of my life. But as a record producer, I got very interested the music that I grew up with in London.
So as a kid I grew up in South London, I was surrounded by reggae and ska, I as a punk I was very much on the fringes of all the sound systems that you had in London. In the early 80’s I worked in a jazz specialist shop called ‘Mole Jazz’ and I got very into jazz, but I discovered African music. I discovered the music of West Africa; Fela Kuti, I started trying to play African guitar in the way that Africans do it, but in my own kind of punk way.
So I met a guitarist called Spike, who was in a punk band, and we became part of a band called Weekend and we were playing kind of African licks in a kind of Indie feel. That soon developed to me being in a band called Working Week, through all that I ended up in Africa in the early 90’s and it was Davy Spillaine who set me off on the road to the Afrocelt because he told me that the aboriginal Irish were dark skinned and that there are loads of legends of dark skinned Irish.
He told me lots of stories about how the North Africans having frame drums like the ‘bodhrán’ and having pipes, and I got interested in the Bardic tradition which is the kind of western magical tradition that goes back to the idea that music is a transformative power, that through song and poetry you keep the ancestral legends alive. I met through Baba Mal, I met the griots, and N’Fale is a West African griot, and living breathing proof that the Bardic tradition is a reality, because this is exactly what N’Fale does, it is his culture, and he is a founder of Afro-celt Sound System.
SD: Fantastic, so tell us what is your instrument?
N’Fale: My instrument in the Kora (twenty-one stringed Harp, West Arica), and the Balafon (wooden xylophone, Gambia) and I sing.
SD: Wonderful, as a student at SOAS University (London) we have the opportunity to spend six weeks studying the Kora. It’s such a beautiful instrument.
N’Fale: 21 strings there are to tune… *laughs*
SD: So in the group we have many different origins, I was wondering if there is a place you perform as a group that feels like a home for the band? A base?
Simon: The band was conceived at WOMAD 1995. That was the fist time I helped introduce a kind of post acid house rave Sound System called Whirl-y Gig*.
In 1995 Whirl-Y Gig set up a tent at WOMAD and we played there. Here there was a lot of my friends with bands like Joy, and Transglobal Underground and all the kind of fusion techno bands. Many of which were based in East London. A lot of us were.
The East London Asian community had created the kind of Asian Underground so you had Johnny Kalsi and we were all clustered around the Whirl-y Gig, of which came to WOMAD, and then from that we started working with Real World (Records). So in a way Real World records and the Whirl-y Gig were very much the source, perhaps the origins of the band.
That was because East London was this kind of melting pot at the time of multiculturalism, and we’d all been brought up with music from different cultures. Where as Ireland was much more kind of isolated culturally.
Lara: At that time for sure, actually. My sort of introduction to sounds from around the world; so I lived in New York 2000/2001 for about a year and a half, and I’d have the most amazing experience when I walked home.
Each block I passed would have a completely different musical sound. You had the meringue from Puerto Rico you had the Arabic grooves from Morocco, there was a trance session on in the next block and polish music over the road. This was the sort of scenery I had when I’d finish work and I’d walk home, and so that was something we didn’t have in Ireland. For me going to New York was a similar experience to Simon with WOMAD and such.
Simon: Yes, like I said, when I went to Senegal in ’91 and I walked around Dakar I heard on African radio; there was salsa, there was funk, there was hip-hop, there was a huge amount of latino music there was, bhangra and bollywood, which of corse was huge there. So West Africa was just as much a melting pot. In Baba Mals band there were five languages, so the idea that multiculturalism was invented in the West is not true, there is just a much multiculturalism in Africa I mean reggae…
N’Fale: Latino, the jazz and the pop, the blues all the blues, the pentatonic. In my country there are many natural players, my Uncle is the director of the National Ensemble Traditionál, all these differences come to this National band to build an Orchestral Ensemble, and me I educate in this family, and I discover many different cultures. Polyphonic singing, such as the singing. I am a teacher in Belgium of singing polyphonic, and I do some singing workshops in WOMAD, I use that and I catch some singers too. I am now also in Guinea musical director to coach some people, but this experience Africa gave me many possibilities to hear more different.
Because I learn in the traditional musical family, I have no choice in my musical education, but when I go I go to a different cultures to study, and to mix again the music. The big musicians always like the musician from African.
SD: So it’s safe to say you are all constantly learning…
N’fale: Yes I think we are always sharing, I have worked with for example Lady Smith Black Mambazo, and many others. All these experiences gave me endless possibilities. With Africa being a very nice experience for the world music; to be honest the term world music… I don’t think if I perceive very much that… because they choose the jazz out, and the French music out, the pop and rock … and the rest… what do we have to do with this? Ok same bag; world music.
SD: I completely agree, it can be said that it would only seem to be world music from people in the western hemisphere, as it’s only our genres excluded.
Nfale: In Africa they sing in R&B and they come and sing very nice, but if they hear them they say ok, world music, because he’s from Africa. But then there is jazz music in Africa, the base of jazz, and the blues is from Africa as is the pentatonic, but they call them ‘world music’.
SD: You all like to mix it up…
N’Fale: The new thing for me on the music; the ‘afrotronix’ my traditional instrument with electronic, it becomes completely afrotronic
SD: Such as the music of Afriqoui, they have the Kora with electronic music, and African calabash drumming dubbed…?
N’Fale: I use the calabash, completely traditional, and I used completely modern Panasonic electronic, such as my Wah Wah with my Kora, *impression of a wah wah pedal*.
S:D That’s soo cool.
N’Fale: I have one pedal that I like with the sound of the Kora, very very unique to other griots.
SD: I was hoping to know what music you guys are listening too at the moment in your spare time?
N’Fale: Electronic music
Lara: Yeah you know I listen to everything from Rock, to folk music to electronica to classical there so much music I listen to it all.
Theres a great radio station in Ireland I love. I love that it goes from jazz to classical to pop, to rock. There all just sounds from different genres, I hate, I dislike being put into a genre.
With this, the band and myself were summoned away from the yurt in order to get ready for their performance.
I made my way over to the Charlie Gillet BBC Radio 3 stage where they we to play and awaited. As expected, the crowd grew immensely, an obvious choice on the bill it seemed.
Sure enough out came the band, with Indian drums, Koras, balafons, Irish flutes, Scottish Bagpipes various percussion instruments and of course vocals.
Afro Celt Sound System did not let down. They proceeded to play an electrified performance with grooves that demand dancing, melodies that shake the hips and beats that stomp the feet.
I felt incredibly pleased to see the awesome fusion dance music performed live with such liveliness, passion and energy, all worthy of the 20 year strong band.