Afro Celt Sound System was formed in 1995 as a collaborative effort between traditional African and Celtic musicians and several respected figures from the UK music scene. Much of the recording of the group’s first album, Volume 1: Sound Magic, took place during the 1995 Recording Week at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath. Released in 1996, Sound Magic combined acoustic performances on bodhran, talking drum, Celtic harp, African kora, uilleann pipes and Irish whistles with 21st-century programming and grooves, and married ancient singing traditions from Ireland and Kenya to keyboard drones and techno beats. Rather than sounding kitschy or disparate, the end result was surprisingly cohesive… and beautiful.
The album was met with critical acclaim and impressive sales, particularly for a “world music” project. All Music Guide critic Tim Sheridan summed up Sound Magic best when he wrote: “The outcome is a sort of hip-hop jig and reel, like the Chieftains meet the Chemical Brothers… this effort is worth a listen just for its audacity alone.”
Riding high on the creative energy of the first album, the group settled into a regular touring lineup, delivering increasingly compelling live appearances worldwide, and starting to make plans for a follow-up. However, as recording was set to commence in 1997, tragedy struck when keyboard player Jo Bruce died suddenly and unexpectedly of an asthma attack. For a time it appeared that a second Afro Celt Sound System album might not materialize, but a breakthrough came when the band collaborated with Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, who co-wrote and provided vocals for the title track, “Release” as a tribute to Bruce’s memory. The remainder of Volume 2: Release found the band experimenting with more traditionally-structured songs in addition to writing the extended ambient and dance numbers for which it had become known on Sound Magic, and earned the band their first Grammy nomination.
With the release of 2001’s Volume 3: Further In Time, the Afro Celts were poised to take over the world. In addition to the "official" band members, Further in Time featured the talents of a number of world class collaborators, including Peter Gabriel and Robert Plant. The album earned the band a second Grammy nomination, maximum exposure and a remarkable degree of commercial success. This was especially true in the United States, where Further in Time was promoted by a tour and an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman with Peter Gabriel, who also guested on stage at WOMAD USA 2001. Many of the scheduled US tour dates were cancelled in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the promo video for When You're Falling, (which unfortunately featured an actor falling out of the sky, past an aeroplane and tall buildings, and through the earth), was withdrawn instantly from MTV and VH1.
Following a number of well-received festival dates throughout Europe, the band retreated to its London studio to record its fourth album, Seed. For this project, the group dropped the “Sound System” from its name and became known simply as Afro Celts. While the programmed beats and ambient textures that marked earlier efforts were still present, Seed placed a greater emphasis on song craft and diverse instrumentation, with healthy doses of live bass (both acoustic and electric) and percussion. The songs on Seed were perfectly suited to a live performance setting, and the band appeared at various European festivals and embarked on another well-received tour of North America. Music critic Tad Hendrickson summarized the band’s new direction thus: “The [name]change sounds radical, but it's really just a refinement in their working relationship and songwriting skill. Consequently, Seed holds together more strongly as an album. The songs are more consistently crafted and sonically rich here, with different voices and instruments coming to the fore, but never outshining the greater whole."
With the remix project Pod, released in 2004, the Afro Celts demonstrated another facet of their superior strength as a self-contained music and production team - although it included a handful of previously-released dance mixes, the majority of the album consisted of original re-workings of selected tracks from the back catalogue by the band members themselves. The album's centerpiece was "Whirly 3," which took elements of the original tunes from Sound Magic and introduced several completely new musical ideas, continuing the more “organic” route begun on Seed, thanks in no small part to the live bass and drums worked into the mix. The project was augmented by a bonus DVD that included video footage from the band’s appearance at WOMAD USA 2001, two music videos, and a mind-bending 5.1 surround mix - complete with video - of the epic track “North” from Further in Time.
Also in 2004, the band was asked to compose some of the soundtrack for Terry George’s film chronicle of the Rwandan genocide, Hotel Rwanda. Dorothee Munyaneza, a survivor of that terrible conflict, contributed vocals to several pieces of underscore created for the film. This collaboration proved so fruitful that Munyaneza was asked back to sing again on the next Afro Celt Sound System album, 2005’s Volume 5: Anatomic. Once again released to great critical acclaim (but, regrettably, with far less promotional support than it deserved), Anatomic marked the band's ten-year anniversary with power and style. The album contained enough of the signature Afro Celt sound to satisfy longtime fans, while at the same time embracing more traditional song structures, English-language vocals, and what might be described as a "pan-global" approach. Like all of the band's best work, the songs on Anatomic unfold slowly, building layer upon layer into cathedrals of sound. The recording demonstrated a warmth and symmetry that has led both critics and the band members themselves to characterize it as the group’s most fully realized album to date.
Volume 5: Anatomic marks the end of the Afro Celt Sound System’s contract with Real World, leaving the prospect of future releases undecided as of this writing. Nevertheless, it will take more than "a spell of adversity" to derail a musical force this strong. In many ways, the Afro Celts are just hitting their creative stride as one of the most engaging acts on the world stage - the music will continue, because it has taken on a life of its own. Here's to another ten years and beyond!