Folk

In Conversation with: Afro Celt Sound System

soundsystem
Afrocelt

@WOMAD 2017

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… 

 

*ooh yess** 

 

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. 

In Conversation with: Vigüela

10648637_824605110905108_7346426427696748247_o.jpg

 

Vigüela are a Spain who take their traditional music to a global audience. Having been playing for over 30 years together, Vigüela, part family members, aim to keep alive and vivid the traditional repertoire of specific styles from their home in Castilla La Mancha. The melismatic vocals and pulsating guitar rhythms create a beautiful harmonic sway. 

 

I managed to catch up with Vigüela at WOMAD Festival 2017 before their slot on the BBC 3 Charlie Gillet Stage, and I spoke with them about their influences, their traditions and how they were finding British WOMAD. 

 

Members: Juan Antonio Torres, Mary Nieto, Carmen Torres, Luis Garcia Valera.

 

——————————————————————————————————————————

 

Sophie Darling: firstly did you enjoy your set 

Viguela: Yes of corse, a lot 

 

SD: So let us know the relationships within the band, how do we know each other? 

Viguela: Antonio is founder of the band, he was 15 years old, so that was 35 years ago. Carmen is his sister, so she joined very very soon after he created the band, Marie is from the same village as they, she joined the band ten years go, so they know each other from all their lives, and she has been involved with many groups of women singing and playing music, and so when they decide they want one more woman, they asked her to come with them. Louis is from the different region is from the north and he is like on hour away. We know from the world of folk and traditional music, he is a director of a school for music, so we know him and we needed one more man so he joined the band 5 years ago,  he is only 21 years old. He is from the south eats and we know him only over the internet before we met in person, because he is active mainly int eh traditional practise of music, so he. 

They go to play in the street, so he spend a couple nights in this world, so we wanted to bring someone here, because he sings and he know this music directly from his family, especially his grandfather is his inspiration but also his mother is dancer, and she dances wonderfully so when we had this cache to come to womad to play here on the bbc3 stage, we thought about bringing  a guest artists to show what he can do, the music he knows can join perfectly with Viguela, because it continues in a style of music that is like a language. 

 

SD: Can you explain a little bit about your genre of music, and for example is there a strong timing

Viguela: This is a very interesting questions, because the question of rhythm is quite intriguing, beaus elf you put up a clap you always say this is awful, because you can't play this music with a clap, because the procession of ‘compas’ you have these music sheets with the lines, so they say this is a 3/4 compas rythm, this is a 2/4 4/4 that concession in this music doesn’t have place, this a totally different way of making music, I mean you can't record this with a clap because you make the drums then  you have to make the bass… no, you have to play together of corse to make a records with this, you can add voices after that perhaps, but everyone has to be together because the rhythms is moving al the time, you can’t really touch the rhythm in the modern conception of music. 

 

SD: How did you all start learning your instruments, was it passed down from your family? I assume from what you just explained that it wasn’t a western ‘sitting down’ and reading scripture technique? 

Viguela: Mainly we learned from our families, but also from the social environment, Antonio and Carmen; their father was a professional drummer, he was in band that play for you in the villages, but their grandmothers used to sing, not professionally, but they are singing with people all the time, so they picked p this excuse they have grown, in the rural village with 2000 people, so it’s notary big, and maybe like a little not well communicated with each other, there is no train, and only one bus to the city, so they have guessed some music in their village. 

Marie she is from the same when they were younger this music was totally alive, this was a music that for 

Louis came into the music mainly because he kew his father used to play guitar, but when we was a teenager, he realised that his father didn’t play anymore because he didn’t have someone to play with, so he started to play the lute in order to accompany his father, so after this he also got some of the older people interested again to play some of this music and also to play some specific music they used to play. So it got alive again. So now he studies and teaches education for music, he knows how to communicate in both ways, int eh modern way, but also int he traditional way, and for 

Habe, he is only young, 20/21 years old. So he has all the possibilities to be interested int his music because all his grandfathers died, but his family in general they are very musical and dancing and playing. 

 

SD: Do you have a good fan bass at home? Where have your most enjoyable performances been? 

Viguela: In Spain of corse they have played a lot, they have some people that are really really encouraging them all the time, “ahh Viguela you ere going round the world”, because you know sometimes when you are doing things like this, coming here, the people are very proud of this. But we are so happy in Spain that there are a lot of prejudices against this music, because they really don't listen to it, but they feel it is rural its old fashioned lack of modernity. The contemporary people can only sometimes be interested. This is traditional music from the people in our village. There is also perhaps new folk lets say inspired, but from a modern point of view I mean, the ones who can’t record an full album of music with a clap, so we also have that in Spain. For me it is another world, it is a different world, because this is a different approach to music, totally different. But we have these two things, The traditional music we also have other kinds of gigs with bigger line ups, with choreographic with um, dress, everything is quite standardises lets say, they go they make their show always the same, or maybe they can include one more song, but its more different now. It’s another world too. But sometimes it’s very confusing everything gets old, people don't understand really how to interpret it, how to excuse they think this is like the other thing meh but this is shay we face a lot of prejudices, but this of corse is why it is very important to be here, because we are so traditional to excite the Spain, and of the other people that have prejudices, but for others too to be very proud 

 

SD: What was the small guitar you were playing? 

Viguela: Mini guitar, e’darram mancheio’ 

 

SD: any follow up gigs? 

Viguela: yes in Spain, we have gigs on Fridays and Saturday and we hope no later than the end of the year we will have recorded a new album 

 

——————————————————————————————————————————

 

In a beautiful atmosphere Vigüela came out roaring a stunning Spanish tune from their homelands. The guitars and the vocals caught the attention of the audience, who gathered to listen to the traditional music. 

For me the vocals are truly the aspect that stands out in this beautiful music, almost Arabic with it’s tonality, I love how they interact singing together. 

In Conversation With: Ganga Thapa

GangaThapaC

SOAS University (Islington)

16.03.17

 

On the second of February, I went to the Rich Mix to see the band Namlo, fronted by Ganga Thapa, perform at their album launch. Namlo is the only Nepalese touring band in England. I was taken aback by the versatility of their tunes, spanning from their opening bass driven funky song, totheir more serious emotive slower songs. Knowing very little about Nepalese music, I decided to ask Ganga if he would mind meeting with me to have a one on one chat about his music, Nepals music, and his journey to the Rich Mix. Sure enough, an efficient week later, we met at SOAS University for a one on one conversation. Here’s what happened that day….. 

 

A Sunny (but windy) Thursday….     

I was working in the SOAS radio station when everyone abruptly dropped what they were doing to rush downstairs to the SOAS steps. I was alerted that the King of the Yoruba people (Southwest and North Central Nigeria) was to be arriving at SOAS within half an hour with twenty of his court musicians. The reason for this was apparently to make stronger alliances with the SOAS research department. I happily left what I was doing, grabbed my notebook and camera and ran with the crowds to see what all the fuss was about.

 I was here to be meeting Ganga Thapa, leader and front man of all-Nepalese band; Namlo. I asked him if he would mind taking our meeting outside into the sunshine and explained the added drama of the supposed royal visitor. Also rather excited by the prospect of seeing a King, we agreed to set up outside in the beautiful sunshine. We each first grabbed hot drinks; a coffee for me, and hot chocolate for Ganga. 

We firstly exchanged pleasantries, and I told Ganga how I had been at his album launch in the Rich Mix, how enjoyable I found the evening and how I found the versatility of the music amazing. It was immediately apparent how easy it was going to be having conversations with Ganga, friendly and chuckling, Ganga was open to sharing and also open to laughing. 

Together we sat outside for over an hour awaiting the royal arrival and chatting about all manner of things. 

S.D: Let’s talk firstly about your time before moving to London and before Namlo…

Ganga Thapa (G.P): Growing up in Nepal you’re surrounded by the beautiful Himalayan mountains, and so, that’s what everyone automatically thinks about. I found no-one thinks about the music there.

I studied Ethnomusicology in our capital city Kathmandu. I enjoyed it, but decided to carry on my studies elsewhere, somewhere a little more versatile. That’s why when I was twenty two I moved alone to London, England. Here I continued my studies in Ethnomusicology at degree level at the University of SOAS (otherwise known as, the School of Oriental and African Studies). Ethnomusicology is the study of music and cultures. I realised that there was very little focus on the musics of Nepal.

 I was very lonely at first. The cultural change was crazy, London is such a big busy city, it made me feel very lonely. The adjustment period for me never quite seems over. I dearly missed the open spaces of Nepal, and found it hard in London with the lack of sunshine. Sunshine energises you and there is very little of this in London. I think perhaps how much I missed Nepal effected a little of my studies. I would sometimes miss class’s, and had the teachers emailing me to ask where I was. 

 When I was studying in Nepal, I had picked up playing the Sarod, which second to the sitar, is the most played instrument in traditional Indian music and classical Hindustani music. I also learned to play classical guitar, something I continued in England, and now offer classical guitar lessons also. 

A great deal of the musical focus in Nepal is on Indian music. I therefore started off learning Indian Ragas’s (Indian melodic modes). I found myself more interested in the folk melodies coming from the classical Nepalese musicians. This became important to me. The radio will always be playing new ‘pop’ music. Indian pop is most prominent on the radio’s in Nepal, other forms of music are somewhat discouraged and less important. This fed me further into the desire to play the traditional folk musics from all over Nepal. I have childhood memories of the folk musics played, and it is these memories that I wanted to remember in my music.

S.D Have you faced any difficulties?  

G.T: It has not always been easy in England, being from Nepal, it is sometimes hard to travel around, and consequently I have had a lot of distressing issues with living in England. I am sure these are not unique to me, but they are not easy. It is when facing these difficulties that music really becomes the driving force behind not just my creativity, but everything. It’s music that keeps me happy, healthy and able to continue through the tuff times. Sometimes these unfair things that get thrown at us, sometimes maybe they help. Maybe sometimes we need a little pain. 

S.D Can you tell me about your musical inspirations? 

G.T: My primary inspirations came from the folk melodies in Nepalese music. This is something that I wanted to present in my music; all the Nepalese folk areas of music. In England, the Nepalese music is very bad, terrible, I wanted to make sure that the subconscious cultures from all over Nepal are being played and represented. 

However saying that, in Nepalese music, the vocals are technically very very good, this is something I wanted to harness, however the vocals can also be very boring, there is too much happening in their music, and they stay within the melody all the time. Very boring. Also Nepalese songs tend to have very long lyrics, in my songs, the overall structure of the lyrics aren’t as long.Itake the technicality of the vocals and make it my own, make it interesting. 

I also very much like African tonality. That’s why I take some inspiration from West Africa as well, such as from Mali. 

Many Malian artists inspire me, I particularly love mystros Bassekou Kouyate and Toumani Diabate, as well asAli Farke Toure and Habib Kouyate. Habib Kouyate actually has the guitar that I had always wanted, and finally got for myself. The guitar is a Godin guitar and has a midi output built in, very cool indeed. 

S.D What is your song writing process?

G.T:  Inspirations for me songs come in all places. When I write my songs, the melody will come to me first, perhaps I will play something on the guitar, then the lyrics will come second. This is how I write my music. Very often inspirations will come randomly when I am travelling, and I will need to write a song there and then, but always I will mainly be inspired by the folk traditions, the rhythms and melodies of Nepal. From the North and the South, all over, I want to take the little differences in their cultures, and play them all.

S.D Can you tell me about your music and Namlo? 

G.T: I was originally in a band in England called the Yak Attack when I first moved, but now I am playing with Namlo. I am also a teacher in classical guitar. However Namlo is what I am doing full-time. 

Together in Namlo we represent all of Nepal, with four of us directly from Nepal, our double bass player is from Wales, and our clarinet player is Australian. We recorded the percussion on our debut album in Nepal. Another of my inspirations if of corse Bisso Shahi whose produced our album. He has been a constant influence to me and Namlo as a band. I feel our sound would be rather different without his inspirations. He has guided me very much so.

Namlo in Nepal is actually the name we call to the strap. A strap that holds our ‘Doko’ baskets. It is a very strong strap that is used in everyday life, it is an integral part of out lives, and everyone from Nepal knows exactly what a Namlo is. It helps us to carry things easily. I like it because it represents what we are doing with our band. The basket you see is weaved together for strength. Just as we are weaving our cultural bonding together in support of the Nepalese community worldwide. 

We want to create cross cultural global music. From all the different folk scenes and melodies from different parts of Nepal, to London UK. I want to fuse these Indian and Nepalese and Western influences in order to raise the profile of Nepalese music in a global context. I want to represent our diverse community.

When there was the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, we knew we had to show our solidarity and try and help our people. Therefore we arranged 10 gigs all around England, and all the money we made went straight to those effected by the earthquake. It was very difficult for us to see the suffering, so we had to do something to help.

S.D: Do you have help organising your schedule?

G.T:  To help us tour and play gigs everywhere, we managed to get some Arts Council funding. This helped us dearly, as we have no band manager. I book all the concerts myself, which can be very challenging. Also keeping our social media up to date is also a task I find sometimes difficult asI feel my English is not always the best. Never the less, we find venues, promoters who want cross cultural performances, and we travel around the country playing these gigs. 

S.D: Where can we listen to your music?

G.T: Our Debut album self titled Namlo is now available after our album launch in the Rich Mix on the second of March (2017). It has been produced by my good friend and guide Bisso Shahi. The launch at the Rich Mix was one of my favourite concerts. The sound in the venue was really good, same as when we played in Union Chapel. As our music has a story, it is nice to have venues that have good quality sound as we can really feel as though we are portraying our message and our story to the audience. You can also listen to my catalogue of music on my website: gangathapa.com

 

After a good couple of hours of chatting, we decided to call it day. For those wondering, we did manage to see the King of the Yoruba people during our conversation. He arrived with all the gusto and grandeur expected of Royalty. with twenty musicians playing and singing for his as he walked fro his limo to the SOAS steps under a large umbrella propelled by two of his men. After witnessing this arrival, we made our way inside to warm up from the bitter London ‘summer’ weather. 

Having listened to the Namlo album, I found it hopelessly catchy and infectious. I listened to the album for the first time back to back. It is certainly a product of fusion. The beautiful sounds such as the flutes playing Nepalese melodies, and the voices being used sometimes as just harmonium drones. With up-beat feel good songs such as ‘Kauda' with more obvious Indian influences and the stunning voice of Shreya Rai, to the more emotive ‘Pida’ (translated Grief) taking us on a journey, and using near to no lyrics in doing so. The whole album from beginning to end captures the fusion Ganga speaks of so desperately of wanting to portray. 

When times are tuff I listen to the Namlo album, it’s soft and pulsing groove allows me to travel to a happy musical space. I can listen to the album from start to finish with ease and pleasure. It’s lovely to hear and recognise the wonderful Nepalese rhythms and melodies spoken so highly off. I would buy this album for my nan and also for my best friend. Truly a beautiful piece of work, it has an appeal to the great majority. 

Conducting this ‘one on one’ with Ganga was an absolute pleasure, we laughed and smiled and talked of all things good and bad. His honesty and openness was an absolute pleasure to work with. I like to think I found a friend in Ganga that sunny Thursday afternoon. 

You can catch Namlo play on: May 26th at the Southbank Centre (London), July 6th at the Folkestone Festival and July 9th at SOAS for the South Asian Festival. You can also buy the album ‘Namlo’ on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. Be sure to follow them on all media platforms to follow Ganga and Namlo on their journey to spreading Nepalese music globally.