The 'Grateful Dead' of World Music.
The release of an album by Afro Celt Sound System is an infrequent event - but all the more eagerly awaited for that! And "Flight", only their third album in 12 years, is certainly a treat! Even better, the band have been on tour! I caught up with them at Poole's Lighthouse Arts Centre, so thought it would be great to combine the review of their new album with a live gig review.
Flight is a thrilling album, at least as good as 2016's The Source (see Fatea Review March 2016). Featuring the core collective of Simon Emmerson (guitar, cittern), Johnny Kalsi (Dhol drum), and N'Faly Kouyate (kora, balaphon), the new CD uses the usual mix of percussion, Celtic pipes and fiddle, keyboards/samples and vocals. No less than 3 guest choirs appear on selected tracks - the Amani Choir, the Stone Flowers and the African Gospel Singers. The result is 13 tracks featuring the classic Afro Celt blend of Irish and Scottish tunes, African and Indian rhythms, and vocals in a babel of languages. But, this time, I feel the tunes show even greater drive and intensity, whilst the excellent recording and mixing retains the subtlety of the interplay of voices, instruments and beats.
Live, the band are a real crowd pleaser: they dub themselves "the Grateful Dead of World Music". However, Poole audiences can seem notoriously passive, and tend to expect to be entertained, rather than participate at such events. So, to be able to report that, at one point, between one-third and a half of the audience were up and dancing in the aisles is no small tribute to the energy and driving pulse of the music. In part also, this was due to the fact that a band which has been in existence for over 20 years still retains the currency to pull in a significant number of teen/sub-teen fans! Sheer exuberance, musicianship and showmanship left the audience breathless by the end of the evening. Of course, those who know the venue - a cavernous barn, with acoustics designed to suit the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra - will be unsurprised to hear that the sound was typically problematic! Sat as I was on the stage-left of the auditorium, I could hear little of the guitar, belaphon or djembe situated on stage right! Vocals were typically crisp when instrumentation was soft or sparse, but were drowned to a sludge when the sound levels rose. And the kit drum and dhol dominated much of the time - great if you wanted to just dance to the rhythms, but disappointing when you also want to experience the sounds of Flight reproduced on stage. To be fair this didn't destroy the overall impact of a great gig - but it dulled the musical edges: the subtle interplay of rhythms and genres which lie at the core of Afro-Celt's uniqueness.
What about the music itself? Well, the first thing to say about the CD is that it consists of performances recorded live in a number of studios across Europe and Africa. So, if you missed their live gigs, buying the album is very much the next best thing! Secondly, the album has strong political messages; the title plays on the fact that "flight" refers both to the migration of people from parts of Africa and beyond, caused by political disruption and climate change, and the parallel migrations of bird species. Bird-watching, of course, is a passion shared by Simon and label co-owner/executive producer Mark Constantine.
Sanctus is a stand out track - both live and on the album. On the CD it follows the traditional Lament for MacLean (Marbhrannn do Shir Eachann Mac'illEathainn), a track which rather stands alone from the rest of the album. Sanctus (from the African Mass, the Missa Luba) begins with voice (The Amani Choir) and dhol and brings back memories of the recording by Les Troubadours du Roi Baudoin, which became a hit in 1968 when it was used in the soundtrack of Lindsay Anderson's cult film If. Here, it builds the rhythm first with the percussion, then brass (the Kick Horns), fiddle and finally the choir. The song never fails to raise the hairs on the back of your neck - a brilliant intro to both album and concert, (but perhaps even better as the final encore?).
Central to the album is the migration medley: Flight, Migration, Homecoming and Night Crossing. From the intro of gentle guitar and vocals, Flight develops slowly with celtic fiddle and pipe into Migration, thence into an African stomp, Homecoming. The sequence closes with a lament by Rioghnach Connolly, Night Crossing, featuring just her voice and gentle choir backing. This is a moving and vibrant evocation of the twin disruptions of human communities and their environments. Both this sequence and the Fissiri Wali Polka worked well in the context of the live concert.
The closing tracks on the album give a flavour of a live concert: up-tempo, driving percussion rhythms which build and build the energy, urging the audience on to get up and dance. Manako/It's Too Late is a good example. Step Up and Rippling are rather more pedestrian tracks in a similar vein - danceable, but they could have been made at any time in the past 20 years. (They remind me of mid-90's tracks by producers like Paul Mouncy). The Path slows the pace down a little, to a pulsing funk beat, before doubling tempo about half way through to become a dance rhythm. This gives way to Night Crossings Part 2 - the Celtic lament mixing with the African words and choral backing of Stone Flowers - a group of refugees and torture survivors. By closing the album with another lament, (echoing the opening Lament for MacLean), we are brought back down to the realities of modern flight - from oppression, hunger and poverty - after the joyous and frantic dance music of the preceding tracks. This time, though, the lament carries an undertone of HOPE.
Please buy Flight - you won't be disappointed. And don't forget to search out CD's by Stone Flowers, the Amani Choir, and the original Missa Luba recording.
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