Interview: Afro Celt Sound System
Updated: Jul 16, 2022
One of the most successful acts to come out of the Real World Records scene, Afro Celt Sound System have made musical fusion, inter-cultural exchange, and sonic innovation their hallmarks. We spoke with band members Simon Emmerson, N'Faly Kouyaté, and Johnny Kalsi about their respective musical backgrounds, the state of the music industry today and the inequalities that lie within, as well as the aftermath of the traumatic split that threatened the continuation of the band...
“Through our culture we don’t even have to play a note, I can stand next to N’Faly and Simon and our faces already have told a story of the world without playing anything. That’s the best part.” - Johnny Kalsi
Few bands have an origin that is linked to legendary happenings of eons ago. Upon hearing the story that West Africans were the first settlers of what is now Ireland, something clicked inside musician and producer Simon Emmerson. Visiting his friend Davy Spillane, the famed Uillean piper and low whistle player, upon Emmerson’s return to the United Kingdom after a spell abroad producing an album for Baaba Maal, he played some of Maal’s tunes, whereupon Spillane informed him of the above legend. According to Emmerson, his experience in Senegal “completely changed the way I saw myself and I saw music” because he “felt that a lot of the music that Baaba Maal was playing came from a very ancient place that I could relate to”, but it was only upon hearing the tale of the black Celts that “all these pieces of a jigsaw [fell] onto a table, building up this picture.” Band member Johnny Kalsi describes a similar experience many years later at Spillane’s abode, where Kalsi was shown a map of Ireland and the possible route that these West African travellers may have taken. For the band’s kora player, N’Faly Kouyaté, it was not a visual representation that convinced him of the shared connection between the Irish and the West Africans, but rather a sonic, linguistic, and social similarity that he has discovered between the bardic and griot cultures.
Whether or not this fanciful story is true is not the point, rather the truth within the core of this beguiling folkloric narrative is what holds the group together. A belief in the universality of music, common humanity, cross-cultural fusion and collaboration are at the heart of the band, musically and in their very being. Kouyaté comes from a family of Guinean griots hailing back 72 generations, and he fondly recalled his days as a youngster when he was forced to learn the music of his culture. “You have not a choice… you’re born, you talk, you try to play with [the balafon stick],” he told us, before continuing that at the earliest opportunity he was encouraged to play live. “They bring the first instrument to you to try to teach you, go directly to play and practice at a wedding!” The music and the culture are intertwined, and part of the job of a griot is to be a repository for the ancestral history of their nation. Kouyaté reminisced that prior to attending classes as a youth, his father would proclaim “’before you go to the school of the white people, you have to come to my ancestral school!’” While traditional music was Kouyaté’s focus, he of course was exposed to other genres on the radio, and once he received his scholarship to study electronic music in Belgium, he was able to dig deep into the Belgian folk scene, finding it easy to adapt his ear to new styles.
Kalsi had a different route into the world of music. Born in England, his parents formerly lived in Kenya, but had left due to fear of anti-Indian sentiment spreading across the border from Idi Amin’s Uganda. Growing up, Kalsi listened to a wide range of music, part of “the movement of [his] nomadic history” that brought with it “the movement of music”. Kalsi warmly reminisced about his father’s Grundig reel-to-reel machine. The reels had been brought over from India, and “on that reel music was real music”, recorded in one room with one microphone, with “the band [adjusted] around the room, you’d get the tabla player right away in the corner over there” so nothing overpowered anything else in the mix. Indian and Kenyan songs formed part of his musical upbringing, alongside popular releases by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Asha Bhosle, and Lata Mangeshkar. However, the pop and rock music of the day were also obsessions for the young Kalsi, and he told us that when his parents went out, he would “put on Led Zeppelin and Duran Duran, straddle [his] dad’s Chesterfield couch and pretend [he] was playing drums.”
Emmerson’s beginnings in music were explicitly political, having become a punk in the late 1970s, instigated by the Rock Against Racism movement. Though his roots lay in punk, having been a member of Scritti Politti, who were “part of a very radical collective of young punks squatting in Camden Town” and were, according to Emmerson “a right obnoxious bunch of angry young men,” Emmerson’s style evolved, and he later formed Working Week with Larry Stabbins, who were a soul jazz group. Though he is a fan of Celtic music, he does not play it himself. Having grown up listening to English folk music, and then moving through the punk, soul and acid jazz scenes, it was through a local scene in North London where he developed his passion. As he moved into production, he worked on an album with legendary Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, and that connection led him to his production work with Baaba Maal.
All these diverse musical roots and inspirations are keenly felt in the music of Afro Celt Sound System, where Irish pipes live happily alongside synthesisers, dhol drums and koras. The band is a collective of musicians, which has seen numerous members come and go over the years. This illustrious list of collaborators includes such people as Gaelic hip-hop innovator and poet Griogair Labhruidh, as well as experimental Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, and the aforementioned Spillane. Kalsi and Kouyaté both joined the band as session musicians, before gaining equal status to the band’s founder, Emmerson, almost two decades after initially becoming involved with the group. For the Afro Celt Sound System producer, this remains to this day his biggest regret when it comes to the formation of the band. “That for me was an oversight,” he reflected ruefully. “That should have happened a lot earlier than it did, and I put my hands up.” For Emmerson his remorse over this is due to the fact that it went against his principles of fairness and equality, and that he let it go on for so long. However, his attempts to rectify the situation in 2015 led to the band’s most traumatic moment.
“It was absolute hell. I mean it was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me,” said Emmerson, recalling reading the open letter published on the band’s website by fellow band members Martin Russell and James McNally. What was once a harmonious collective was having its dirty laundry aired to the world, forcing a split and a subsequent legal battle which Emmerson told us was about who rightfully owned the name Afro Celt Sound System and whether or not Kalsi and Kouyaté should be equal partners. Emmerson saw it thusly: “you can’t have a band called the Afro Celt Sound System where the two guys in the band with brown skin are treated as session musicians, it goes against everything I believe in and I wanted them to be treated with the same respect that was given to James when he joined the band.” Emmerson sensed a “deep-seated jealousy” from Russell and McNally stemming from frustrations over “their contribution not being recognised”, which he disputed. The case ended up in the High Court, with Emmerson retaining the rights to the name of the band, Kalsi and Kouyaté became full members, while Russell and McNally received a settlement. The court costs were high, and while the split was firmly acrimonious, Emmerson and the band paid the legal costs of the other side. Though Emmerson could not tell us about certain aspects of the case for legal reasons, the fact of the matter is that the split cast a long shadow on the band. However, they were able to poke some fun at the situation. After animatedly telling us about the painful details of the whole sorry affair, Emmerson joked “as you can see, we’ve completely got over it!”
When speaking to the trio, one gets a sense that this whole saga, whilst being incredibly draining, reinforced the importance of challenging what is a wider issue across the whole world music scene, namely that of the unfair distribution of wealth within the industry, particularly when it comes to black and brown-skinned artists. The loquacious Emmerson informed us that he recalled Kouyaté mentioning to him that he felt “he was treated in the same way as his ancestors were treated by the white man”. The more taciturn Kouyaté corroborated this with a wry chuckle and a simple “yeah”. This exploitation of musicians by the corporate machine was further elucidated to us by the softly-spoken dhol maestro Kalsi. “You sign universal rights, not even world. Universal, because satellites are not in the world, they are classed in space, so you sign universal rights… so there’s a big catch there.” According to Kalsi, this locks musicians out of repeat earnings through a lack of publishing rights, which are snapped up by record companies. Confirmed by Emmerson, he mentioned that he “[knows] a lot of very successful people in the music industry, in world music, very few of them are musicians… I can say for a fact that there are people we are working with in our collective who are on the poverty line and are literally in the heat or eat syndrome.”
This often disproportionately impacts musicians from non-white backgrounds, partially due to the lack of non-white representation amongst the music industry bigwigs, and in Kalsi’s view, a lack of education about how to successfully navigate the exploitative booby traps tied into music contract law. These issues have affected even the most successful musicians, with Kalsi noting that even a musician as lauded as Prince was stuck for years in a contract dispute with his record company. “I think the big machine needs a new label,” Kalsi mused, before elaborating that there needs to be a way of getting recognised that is not just through “being under a white label” and also more established guidance for artists looking to get into the currently treacherous upper echelons of the music industry. In effect, acting as a de-greaser for the greasy pole.
We asked the group if they thought the term ‘world music’ was in and of itself a reflection of the racism that exists within the scene. Kouyaté provided a thoughtful retort, stating that there is a “discrimination” when “we talk world music.” He cites the fact that any music, as long as it is from a non-Western country gets lumped in under the same category. “They put all the rest of the music in a big bag, they say this is the world music, I’m very sad to say that. In Guinea there is jazz and rock but they call that world music [in the West].” Kouyaté lamented the fact that, despite “every country having his own folk,” but in the West, “it will all be [considered] world music”.
Emmerson, on the other hand, decided that the question itself was a “smoke screen” that avoided looking at the real issue of “who has the power.” Emmerson entered into an impassioned rant about the unfavourable conditions for musicians across the music industry, but particularly within world music. “We have spent 20-25 years as one of the most successful world music acts, we’ve sold millions of records, and why are people within my collective suffering still, and then I look across at the people running the festivals and the record companies and they’re doing very well,” he stated, which to him matters more than any hypocrisy or racist undertones hiding behind the name. Emmerson views Afro Celt Sound System as a way in which he can try and affect change within music. “It’s all about who has the power and whether there is a fairness and equality there,” he expounded, “which we in our own little way in the Afro Celts have tried to kind of achieve.” Emmerson even went one step further, believing that topics of discussion such as these ”[stop] you talking about the relationship to power that exists within the world music scene which as far as I am concerned has never really been addressed.”
However, the band recognise that their success was kickstarted with the help of world music’s guiding force, Peter Gabriel, and Real World Records, with Emmerson even stating that they would not be where they are today without his help. The interest and support granted by Gabriel enabled Afro Celt Sound System to be one of the only world music artists to break into the mainstream, at least momentarily. However, this sojourn into the wider public consciousness was cut short by global political events. The band met with legendary rock producer Bob Ezrin, who prophesied to them “I can take you out of the world music ghetto, and we are going to have hits”, according to Emmerson. The band then wrote When You’re Falling, which featured Gabriel on vocals, and achieved instant commercial success, with the band even invited onto some of the biggest talk shows in the United States such as Conan and Letterman. However, this peak abruptly came to a halt in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. This was due to the unfortunate coincidence that the music video for When You’re Falling featured a man falling through the sky, passing by some tower blocks. This, alongside the chorus and title, was deemed too close to the bone in the immediate post-9/11 shock, and thus the video was pulled from MTV, as was the song pulled from record shops. Years later, the band can see the funny side of it all, with Kalsi joking that they were in good company in being pulled from the airwaves at that time, as “they did pull Bob the Builder at the same time, because that was a reference to construction.”
Gabriel’s impact upon the band was not just giving them their start at Real World’s recording week, or indeed lending his star power to their big mainstream hit, but also the band’s repeated invitations to the world-famous WOMAD festivals. For Kouyaté, WOMAD is particularly close to his heart, as it was his solo kora performance at Barbican WOMAD that directly led to him meeting Afro Celt Sound System. Kalsi was also there that day, and according to him, “the stars aligned”. Kouyaté also mentioned that working with Gabriel at WOMAD Seattle was for him a career highlight. Kalsi also holds fond memories of WOMAD, particularly their second WOMAD in which they had thousands of foam frisbees, which they launched into the crowd in order to advertise their website. Kalsi found it incredibly amusing because “they started throwing them back” during the performance.
The band have performed on many stages across the world, and have played with many renowned musicians. The band as a whole recorded a track with Sinead O’Connor in 1997, and individually, Kalsi has continued to work with legends of the game, such as Angelique Kidjo, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant. In more recent years, Kalsi also performed onstage with Welsh icon Tom Jones at the Queen’s 92nd birthday party in 2018. Kalsi’s big-name collaborations have inspired the group to be on the lookout for a special collaborator for their new album, with Kouyaté secretly hoping to nab Senegalese mbalax ace Youssou N’Dour, proclaiming “why not?” with a cheeky smile. Emmerson on the other hand remained tight-lipped, refusing to say who he wanted to work with on the new album for fear of jinxing it.
The next album is currently in production, and Emmerson views it as being a more conceptual piece than previous works. When gently prodded as to when this album may be released, Emmerson batted off our questions by explaining that “you can’t rush an Afro Celt album, it’s like a pint of Guinness – you’ve got to let it sit.” In terms of the creative process, Emmerson was similarly elusive, describing it “as much a mystery to us as is it is to you.” Kouyaté describes the process as mutually collaborative, with musical ideas flowing freely from band member to band member. “We give the inspiration mutually between Simon and myself, he plays a melody, a melody inspires me and I [get] inspired [by] this.” Emmerson backed this up by stating that Afro Celt Sound System music tries to “liberate creativity from… power [and] exploitation,” at which point the band enters “the realm of the glorious creative anarchy… anarchy in terms of mutual aid and mutual respect and where people help each other out…that is Afro Celt music at its best, and it is very, very strange when it happens.”
This anarchic style of free-form music, dubbed by Emmerson as “the collective expression of the human soul”, means that when producing music they often fall afoul of the so-called “folk police”. However this does not mean there is not great respect for their musical traditions and instruments. Kalsi is the founder of the Dhol Foundation, an institute which teaches workshops in the UK and around the world on how to play the dhol drums. Starting small, the institute has now extended to Kenya, Australia, and Canada, with Kalsi joking that “it became a big movement, nowadays you lift a pavement stone and there is a dhol player under it. I can put my hand up and say I am probably to blame for most of that.” The group has also worked on several well-regarded films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence and Gangs of New York, with a sixth album in the pipeline for 2023.
The preservation and promulgation of an instrument is not unique to Kalsi within Afro Celt Sound System. Hailing from a griot family, Kouyaté is a champion of the kora, and has recently been recognised as such in Senegal. Kouyaté excitedly revealed, to the surprise of his band members, that “they chose me to be the president of this festival” in which “1,000 kora players will be there, white people, black people, [at an] international kora festival.” Kouyaté is also passing down the baton of his griot heritage to his own son, though he approaches it differently to the way he was taught back in Guinea-Conakry. Kouyaté recalled that in his day, “you have no choice, you have to play”, but he continued that “for my son, no, I used another system as they are half-European and half-African. I bring the pedagogy and they are playing now kora and balafon.”
These diverse musical traditions inform one aspect of the band’s collective identity, as does Emmerson’s own English background. “You can’t be in a band like the Afro Celts without being secure in who you are. You can’t collaborate with other people without being comfortable with who you are and who your identity is”, citing left-wing activist and musician Billy Bragg in pronouncing himself to be a “progressive patriot”, rejecting the guilt or shame that a proportion of English people feel about their heritage. Whilst the band share a sense of collective identity on stage, as individuals, the way in which they see themselves is heavily guided by their respective music cultures. For Kouyaté, he describes it as “simple”, continuing that he has several priorities when thinking about his heritage. “My first is to make my ancestors happy to me when I do music, that is very important, because [somehow] I continue their job, my second is to add something in my cultural repertoire… I create now new style Afrotronics, Afro electronics.”
By virtue of his upbringing in the UK, Kalsi had questions around identity ringing around his mind from a young age. Though now it certainly seems he is secure in his identity, he remembered the sense of confusion he felt when he was “told to go back to [his] own country”. He recognises that the story of British colonialism has informed the “nomadic, historic generation of his ancestral past”, but does not see this as being the determining factor in who he is. Kalsi’s Sikhism informs not only the preservation of Punjabi music culture in his day job, but also charity work away from the stage. “The first philosophy of our religion is be a good human, that is before religion, and the next philosophy is always be selfless. Before you eat, make sure everybody eats in the room, I have kind of carried that through my entire life and that is what I have taught my children as well.” Kalsi does extensive work with Khalsa Aid, an NGO that helps communities in need across the world, most recently establishing themselves on the Poland-Ukraine border to help refugees fleeing Putin’s brutal invasion. He described to us the reality of being on the ground in places such as these, and he was appalled at the callous inaction of the British government when compared to other European nations. “You get to see the sorry side of it… Priti Patel has got a lot to answer for, that is all I have got to say.”
Kouyaté also has started engaging in crucial aid work in his native Guinea, where access to water is an endemic issue. “My mum was with her friend to go to find water, and to come back she has many litres on her and she fell [and] broke a leg… when I came, she said ‘I want water at home’.” Since then, Kouyaté has made it his mission to build as many wells as possible in Guinea “to give all the water for many mothers there.” Having constructed four wells, and a fifth on the way, he expressed the satisfaction he receives with these accomplishments. “When the well is finished, you see the face of the people there, it is very lovely to see that, you saw the happiness in their face, that’s very important.”
These charitable endeavours show a true social conscience to the band, which, in Emmerson’s eyes, is more effective than the bolshy aggression of the punk bands he joined as a youth. Declaring that he has always viewed “culture and music” as being part of his own “social activism”, he believes that “there is that integrity now in the Afro Celts and I am very proud of it. That comes through the music, it doesn’t come through political posturing, it doesn’t come through rhetoric, we don’t go on stage and make these kinds of simplistic statements that I used to make when I was in punk bands.” For him, the basic fact of seeing the band onstage is a political statement, as they “show that a better world is possible, basically, and that we can all get on and live together and make fantastic music… you don’t need people telling you how to do it, you actually need to see it in practice.”
Kalsi is in agreement with Emmerson on this topic, as he does not view it necessary to become overtly political, rather it is better to “educate people through our music and through our culture, we don’t even have to play a note”. Kalsi proudly acknowledges that their synthesis of many musical traditions is instantly understood by listeners. “They don’t actually place us and go ‘that’s an Indian thing, that’s an African thing, that’s Celtic,’ they don’t do that, they just listen to it as a collective.” This, in and of itself, is the political change they wish to see in the world. As a group who have often used the English language in their music, they are, however, aware of the importance in displaying multiculturalism through language itself, something reflected in Emmerson’s time spent with Baaba Maal in Senegal. “People think multiculturalism is a western thing, yet you talk to any African musician, when I went to Senegal there were five languages in Baaba Maal’s band, and each language had their own tribal history… Baaba Maal’s band might have all looked West African, but they were a multicultural band!”
Whatever the avenue of cross-cultural pollination, it has been a mainstay of the band since its inception, so much so that they have noticed unlikely similarities between unconnected cultures. Emmerson noted that he was told that the Celtic singing of Ó Lionáird had some similarities to some Indian languages, while Kouyaté noticed some similarities between Gaelic and Mandinka words, as well as the similar warmth and friendliness of both cultures. He wistfully recalled playing with Ó Lionáird and being able to sing Mandinka words alongside him. “Sometimes I say you are singing in my language, we joke” Kouyaté said, also noting that the talking drum and the bodhran are similar.
All of these unique cultural experiences have shaped the band and how they view their music. According to Emmerson, “music in its pure form, I’ve always said this, is outside the realms of power and control, and it does give you an insight, and you could say into the divine if you want to be spiritual, or if you wanted to be a humanist, you could say it gives you an insight into humanity.” It is this philosophy that informs what Afro Celt Sound System put energy into. As Kalsi summed it up, despite the many contrasting influences and traditions and sounds that make up the collective, the free pursuit of musical and cultural harmony is what is key: “We don’t have a crisis of identity, we belong here.”