In 1991, Afro Celt Sound System founder Simon Emmerson’s life had bottomed out and he was on the verge of leaving his music career behind. However, a trip to West Africa in which the musician engineered recording sessions with Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal led him to a mysterious connection between traditional Irish and West African music. Simon also met an elderly wise man in the North African desert that confided that the ancestors were returning for the music.
A year later Simon and like-minded musicians, Iarla O Lionáird (a vocalist/lyricist), multi-instrumentalist James McNally and engineer/programmer Martin Russell begun exploring the musical connection between Ireland and West Africa. Dubbing themselves Afro Celt Sound System, the musicians created a new sound that blended the Celtic harp with the African kora as well as, the talking drum with the Irish frame drum along with a rave consciousness. However, the group’s impressive biographical history pale in comparison to the spiritual practice of the group’s members and it is this astounding impetus that has propelled Afro-Celt into the world and pop music limelight. Some might say that the goddess has returned and she has chosen to speak through talking drums.
Despite the group’s outward success, it hasn’t been an easy road and similar to the archetypal hero’s journey, members of the group had to overcome various obstacles including the death of the youngest band member. And now Simon cites that the group must take responsibility for this success on a spiritual level. Not only have the ancestors returned to reclaim music, but also musicians have become impeccable warriors going beyond just mastering their musical talents. And musicians along with other artists have become instruments in which the ancestors can teach us how to balance the energies of the planet.
Patty-Lynne Herlevi: I read that Irish and West African music have similar roots. What are your views on the subject?
Simon Emmerson: Well, they may have the same roots. You know to claim that they have the same roots is a bit too general. They have amazing similarities. You have the Bardic tradition, which is the oral tradition of the Irish people that goes back to Druid times and the early Celt culture. And from what we know from that, the Bardic tradition was based on keeping the family lineage alive. It was a way of storing secret knowledge, magical knowledge within highly complicated verse. So its kind of a magical tradition and it was like the newspaper or mass media. You know the Bards would wander into town (to broadcast the news hidden in the form of oracular riddles).
PLH: So why do journalists call Iarla O Lionáird (Afro-Celt vocalist) an Irish bard?
SE: Iarla O Lionáird comes from the sean nos tradition which is unaccompanied singing (sung in Gaelic).
PLH: I read that the sean nos tradition can trace its roots back to the Bard tradition.
SE: Iarla could trace his roots back to the Bardic tradition, but the Bardic tradition was lost in the 14th Century. And it was lost around the time when the great Irish kingdom collapsed around the 12th Century.
PLH: Then why was William Shakespeare called a bard?
SE: Shakespeare is called a bard, but you’re talking about the Irish Bards then that would be the 11th or 12th centuries at best. It’s kind of Arthurian. I mean it’s been lost in the mist of time. If you’re interested in it, you should read The White Goddess by Robert Graves because that is the one book that deals with it. And he goes into the secret language of the Bards, the Ogham alphabet and the epic poems that they had. There is a poem called Talieson, who is a mythical character that some people recognize as being Merlin.
Ok, so you go to West Africa and you get N’Faley (member of Afro-Celt) who’s a Griot and he traces his roots back to he Mandika Kingdom of the 12th century. And the Griot tradition which is kind of the same (as the Bardic), oral tradition, keeping family lineage alive through song and mediating with the spirits. And there was a secret magical tradition hidden within that. So you know even if they weren’t connected they definitely show that element in European culture that was in African culture that shared the same roots.
PLH: So what is the connection between Ireland and Africa?
SE: In the middle of Gambia there are stone circles and they’re all over Ireland. I mean it makes sense to me because all the westerly tips of Europe if you travel down have the stone circles. They appear in England which is Celtic and then they appear on the westerly tips of France, Brittany and then you come down to the westerly tips of Spain, then Portugal. It kind of makes sense that these were trade routes. And the most northwesterly point of Africa is Dakar. So maybe there were trade routes up and down that coast or maybe it was a migration from Africa to Europe.
PLH: Is it true that North Africans also migrated to other areas of Great Britain?
SE: There’s a book called the Black Celts which two friends of mine wrote. They’re Ethiopian brothers who live in Wales and speak Welsh. And they started writing that because of the similarities between the Welsh language and Berber. But you know it’s a very long story and one I guess one day we’ll really have the time to research in greater depths. What I’m not going to do is sit here and say that we have uncovered the lost tribe of Europe and all that and turned it into the Afro Celt Sound System.
PLH: That’s understandable.
SE: But you know the actual concept of the Celts that the Victorians invented Ireland is that the Celts were noble savages. I mean it was all based on euphemisms and as an antidote to industrialization and the idea that there were these noble warriors making silverware.
PLH: Let’s talk about the connection between spirituality and music. I mean both the Africans and the Celtic traditions were involved in aspects of shamanism. And I would like to see more elements of shamanism present in contemporary music. I don’t know if WOMAD is involved in that or not, but it wouldn’t be a bad path to pursue.
SE: Well, I am.
PLH: I noticed that with WOMAD people are really searching for their roots.
SE: Yeah. That’s really, really important. If we had a hidden agenda its for people to look under them and too look at the earth. Look at where they are and the spirit of the place. I think that the hippies got it wrong. You don’t really have to go to India to find yourself.
PLH: And you don’t have to partake in mind-altering substances when a simple drumbeat will do.
SE: You start with the spirit of the place and then you start with your ancestry. That’s what I learned from Baaba Maal really and working in West Africa. It wasn’t a question of me becoming a West African Griot or studying West African Sufism. It was simply a matter of me going back to England and looking at my own upbringing.
PLH: You’re from East London?
SE: Yeah, I’m from Hackney. As a kid I went to folk camp and the organization that ran the camp was called the Order of the Woodcut Chivalry and they were based and started in the 1930’s in the New Forest. And that’s when the whole WICCA revival happened.
PLH: Where’s the New Forest?
SE: It’s in Dorset. And basically if any WICCAN tells you that they are part of a tradition that’s 2000 years old, really it started with Geraldine Gardner and half a dozen other people at a place called Sandy Balls in the New Forest… So I would go to these camps and sit around campfires and learn about tree law.
And the age of 14 I did my night vigil which was you go out and build a fire and in the morning take an ember from the fire back to the campsite.
PLH: That sounds like a vision quest.
SE: Yeah, you can call it that. I mean there are all these terms now, but it’s a rite of passage. So I would go back to London and go to my comprehensive school and I’d go, "yeah!" I was completely blown away by it.
PLH: One aspect I enjoy with Afro-Celt is the drumming. It feels so tribal and I feel that there is a driving force behind Afro-Celt.
SE: We’re completely guided, yes.
PLH: And it’s not just your band because I have notice this with world music acts like Lo’Jo, and Yungchen Lhamo who are guided by spirit.
SE: The whole thing is the return of the ancestors.
PLH: It’s also return of music and the muse behind song.
SE: When I was in Africa, this elder wise man that I met in the desert said to me that the ancestors were returning for music. And for instruments because the power of words have become corrupted and has become the power of politics and control. So music is where you can get the message across. No, really it’s an amazing story.
PLH: I actually see three ways to get the message across storytelling, film and music.
SE: Yeah, film is a very powerful medium.
PLH: It is unfortunate that only now are people beginning to realize the inherent spiritual potential in the arts, but at least the seeds are being planted. I’m totally fascinated with WOMAD. I come here and the energy is so high and I feel that anything is possible.
SE: That’s one of the reasons why we started WOMAD.
PLH: Again, this all feels so fated. People are looking for this kind of experience because their souls are hungry. And then I hear a song like Afro-Celt’s Shadowman and I realize that musicians can loosely be defined as shamans because they can transcend worlds.
SE: Yeah, sure I know what you mean. This is making a lot of sense. For me there is Jamie Reid who does all of our artwork who is familiar with George McGregory who is one of the pioneer druids of Great Britain who opened up the Stones at Stonehenge.
PLH: So are people in England studying aboriginal shamanism?
SE: Yeah, but we kind of keep it quiet.
PLH: I know that most people aren’t receptive to a conversation about shamanism and its dangerous to talk about one’s spiritual practice.
SE: I’ll talk to you about it because you are following a path. It’s kind of personal and we don’t want to be typecast. And there are a lot of traditions within the Afro-Celts. There’s the West African Muslim Sufi tradition, the Griot tradition and Iarla is kind of ultra-skeptic.
PLH: (Laughs) Ultra-skeptic?
SE: Well, he doesn’t believe in God or anything we’re talking about yet. He does recognize that there’s something happening in Afro-Celt that he can’t explain. Myrdhin our harp player lives in Brittany and is deeply shamanic with his Breton ancestors, as well.
PLH: I know, the traditions are returning and growing.
SE: You have to be very careful you know because it was so misused in the 70’s.
PLH: I prefer the idea of medicine women gathering in a circle while practicing healing work.
SE: That’s still power.
PLH: Yes, they’re still working with power, but for the good of others. The question becomes are you going to deny it?
SE: You can’t deny power. That’s one of the things that the Christians got wrong.
PLH: I think that Jesus was a shaman or a magician.
SE: It’s true.
PLH: I mean he went out into the desert and performed vision quests…
SE: People did then and he was just responding to the culture.
PLH: He practiced alchemy and other things that people won’t even talk about. I think he’s the ultimate Indian medicine man.
This archival interview took place at WOMAD USA, July 2001. It was originally published in Cranky Crow Whole Music.