Further In Time: An Interview with the Afro Celts
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An Interview with Iarla Ó Lionáird and James McNally
by Ben Kettlewell and Mairéid Sullivan

Afro CeltsThe Afro Celts sublimely illustrate how to mix African and European music with dub/trance and ambient music without destroying the essence of the traditional music. The innovative force of their first release, Afro Celt Sound System, Volume 1: Sound Magic, astonished the musical world in 1996. Their second recording, "Volume 2: Release", continued to show how all of the members of this project are truly first class exponents of the musical traditions and styles they bring together as a group. The energy of this recording reflected how deeply each member of the Afro Celts project are inspired by one another's devotion to their craft. Theresult of all this effort and hard work can be found on their latest, offering, their third album on Peter Gabriel's label, Real World, Further In Time.

On Further In Time, the Afro Celts Creative Core has created a musical world that brings alive the talents of an additional six members and over twenty guests, including vocalists Robert Plant and Peter Gabriel. The world created on Further In Time is truly immense, containing multitudes. It is where voices from African, Irish and Welsh traditions blaze into a future informed by pop craft, rock power and dance euphoria; where the thunderous rhythms of the Punjabi region engage in dialogue with the African talking drum; where the sounds of Morocco and Eastern Europe are woven through cutting edge psychedelic club soundscapes and disarmingly sharp, disciplined songwriting. County Cork's sean nos (old style) singer,

Iarla Ó Lionáird,
supplies his distinctive and plaintive vocals to the Sound System project. He can also be heard on his own celebrated 1997 CD release, 'The Seven Steps to Mercy'. In a language of antiquity - Gaeilge, or Irish - this solitary voice calls to its ancestral spirits. Standing and preparing to sing, a transformation takes place as the face of Iarla Ó Lionáird sets in a mask of private homage to his song. From out of this thin frame comes a voice that climbs a mountain of Gaelic experience - a voice that soars with power and tenderness.

In the Irish singing tradition, the singer takes the nearest person's hand, whether friend or stranger, lifting and turning it as the song rises and falls, calling its message over time to its last long note. In this recording, Canadian producer Michael Brook takes Iarla Ó Lionáird's hand in a weaving, modal spell of drones which carry the songs to a secret space where flames light up the walls of imagination.

James McNally plays the whistle, bodhran and accordion. He is also a member of the Pogues. His own excellent recording "Every Breath", features new arrangements for traditional songs and classic pop songs ( Sting, Knopfler, U2, Morrison, McGowan) was released in 1998 on Windham Hill. He is a 'master' musician who has toured with U2, Depeche Mode and Deep Purple, to name a few. He has played on albums with Sinead O'Connor, Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox, Storm, and others. James McNally was classically trained on piano and piano accordion when he was very young. He developed his passion for Irish traditional instruments and music and went on to become All-Ireland Champion on accordion, piano and bodhran (Irish drum), at the age of sixteen, the same year he acquired his first synthesizer.

During the summer of 2001 Ben and Maiéid interviewed James and Iarla during their Further in Time tour in Los Angeles.

"They were both were down to earth, fun and informative to talk to. We found them to be highly articulate geniuses of pure musical authenticity, yet, they are humble about their achievements. Words can't express how they delight in the musical experiments they have undertaken."

Ben: How did the progression evolve from the first album to your new recording, Further In Time? I know that losing your keyboard player, Jo Bruce, toward the end of 1997 (Ed. Note: son of Jack Bruce, bass player with Cream) must have had a big impact on the change in what you've done over the past year or so.

James: Yes, you're probably the first person to bring that topic up, without us having to mention it first. Jo's death was a profound loss. Throughout the whole band, each of us had a special friendship with him. It was only ten days after we had completed a world tour when he died of an asthma attack. We didn't have a period of time together to get over it, because we had all dispersed. We didn't have any further gigs lined up for a while, ...only two television shows, so we were left to contemplate the future without Jo. We managed to find some strength to write and record one song, Eireann, which is the first one we recorded for the new CD. We quickly found the strength within the band to cooperate and balance each other really well. That inspired each of us with a lot of hope. It was as if Jo was working from the other side to help us do that, because that particular time was probably the lowest of the Afro-Celt's career. The band had already formed a very strong nucleus and a very strong sound, by doing 150 live shows throughout the world. We had formed this incredible sense of family and cooperation amongst each other. We had lost one member, but were still six or seven strong. The song Eireann gave us the platform to do that. We were commissioned to write a piece of music for a TV show in Ireland, and it was a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that we actually had the power to keep going.

Ben: Was the idea of getting Sinead O' Connor to do the guest vocals on your title song on the last album, Release, yours, or was it something the Television Network had planned?

Iarla: The idea to ask Sinead to sing on 'Release' was ours from the beginning. The Television people had nothing to do with our decision making. I knew Sinead privately, and besides being friends, we had an admiration of each other's singing and music. We had some new material. James was absolutely correct about Eireann. You have to remember that we had never written anything original as a group before. On album one, we just went in and did our bit in the studio, and Simon and Martin took it away. (Simon Emmerson, guitars, keyboards, programming and Martin Russell, keyboards, programming and engineering) Just when we were beginning to scratch the surface of album two, Jo died. We were on a ladder, and one of the key rungs broke off. The new recording was a much more complex undertaking with much more ambition. The song Eireann showed us that we could aspire to do more as a team in a hands-on way, where we had more creative input as writers. The writing needed to be broadened, and the production needed to be broadened. A number of other people and I were curious as to whether Release could become a song. We decided that we would ask her to sing it on the basis that I had done some work with her, and it turned out to be the closure technically and physically of the album since it was the last track to be recorded. It was also the closure emotionally of the whole saga of the sorry sad-assed story of the way we felt making the record. To be honest with you, we felt really bad. We never really talked about Jo's death, we just got on with it. It was a kind of fracture that wasn't closing, and we were looking at it all the time. Her response was tremendous. She took a real interest in Jo. She wanted us to write a piece from Jo's perspective, ..voicing Jo to us. Spiritually it was really great for us.

Maireid: The fact that you've all shared something deeply disturbing and deeply sorrowful, with Jo's death, must have inspired a unique communal feeling as you all continued the project together. The tragedy of his loss, which you couldn't ignore on many levels, in hindsight could be seen as a special gift to the group. The entire project constantly reminded you of your deeper feelings. What do you think about that in hindsight? Are you far enough from it yet where you have thought about the value to your music of this shared deep emotion?

Iarla: It wasn't articulated. I was far away when Jo died. None of us were with him when it happened. There was that great sense of separation, a void, ... though he had been spending a lot of time with James up until then. We all had our experiences traveling with him. It's an intense experience when you're touring. You get to know people in a special way. Looking back on the way we resolved it, the moment where it crystallized was when Sinead did that track in that studio, that evening, that place. It was phenomenal. The eyes were welling up. We had done an awful lot up to that moment. Doing this song with Sinead, an artist we happily had a great privilege to be working with, in some way answered our own big questions about Jo and our position as a band, moving on without him ...all in one moment.

James: We all had individual grief. It was always there, and when Sinead sang, we collectively shared it and got it out.

Iarla: We didn't know it until that point, when Sinead sang Release, really. I can only speak lyrically, as a singer, but when you're in the studio, you do your thing, and you don't analyze where it's coming from, it's coming from a lot of different things. You can be absolutely certain that a lot of stuff we were doing, even if we weren't aware of it or recognizing it, was coming from our sense of distraction, and lack of focus, and sense of dissatisfaction with our situation. We were all more pissed off about his death than we ever admitted. I'm talking about a factor of twenty. It was only later, when Sinead did that song, we realized just how angry we were and how his death had caused a lot of hassle.

Maireid: What a perfect spirit to bring in to do that song -- Sinead's spirit!

Iarla: The critics should be told!

James: She has incredible powers of healing, ...that night she showed it.

Iarla: She went about her business, if you know what I mean, ...she went about her business. She knew what her business was, and she went about it. She knew where to cut, she knew what to do for the song.

Ben: You can feel a sorrow running like a undercurrent in the album, but it's more of a sweet sorrow.

Iarla: That's the beautiful thing about it. James will tell you about it, ...how people respond to our live shows with an intense sort of euphoria, and that's particularly gratifying. Especially when the basis we write a lot of our material upon is typically more melancholic, and never more so than on this album.

Maireid: If you're going to release that level of feeling, you couldn't come from a better 'well' of sweet melancholy that the two traditions of Celtic and African music.

James: Take the song, 'I Think Of' for example , ..there's an intense vocal performance that is counter balanced by a marvelously joyous piece of instrumental music underneath it, and they go hand in hand. You get a sense of melancholy if you listen to a certain part of the track, and a complete sense of joy, hope and glory on the other side of things. 'Release' finished the chapter, but opened up the rest of the album to say, "carry on and do not despair".

Maireid: You had all the tools in front of you, the technical know-how, the traditional instruments and songs, and then Peter Gabriel's Real World contribution, that foundation of mastery of all the newfangled equipment. How has that been for you? Have you been hands on with the use of the technical equipment, sampling and all that? Is that your area?

Iarla: I can speak from a position of absolute noninvolvement. The great thing is that so many people in the band have the skills, the equipment, and the savvy, the taste to do what the best electronic specialists do. James himself is a polymath when it comes to his approach to it. There's nothing he can't do.

James: I love that word ( laughs)

Maireid: I'm enjoying the fact that the singer is saying this.

Iarla: I have a responsibility as well. My responsibility is to respond to their artwork. So, obviously I have a great deal of respect for what they do.

Ben: They provide such an incredibly rich sonic atmosphere. Your vocals are like icing on the cake.

James: But it's incredible icing! I'll do a bit of backslapping.

Ben: I find that you've done an incredible job of combining West African and Irish music with dub/trance and other influences in a seamless blend. Can you describe the composition process and the time commitment in the studio?

Iarla: How long did we work on 'Lover's of Light', James?

James: We spent about half a day in the studio. We wrote the top line tune in about two minutes, but I do take the actual balancing act. There are so many colors on our palette. We are blessed with choices. But in fact, that is a blessing in disguise, because then you have to choose and balance them up. I mean, none of us want to go all out techno. None of us would be interested in an album like that. We are actually quite psychic amongst each other. We do approach these songs in very similar ways. In fact we want to represent each other's complete individual classic skill. Each of us really adore what each of us do, and respect and honor it, but we need to give it time to breath. If we overkill on anything, then none of us will be satisfied. We even balanced this album amongst tracks, whereas before you'd balance it among the whole ten tracks of an album. On the last album there would be something that was more harp based or more vocal, or an instrumental pipes tune where we had to work balances between each track. We wanted to pull everything in. We didn't want a disparate band. There are four core members who are writing. Martin and Simon represent the balancing act of the top line melodies which would be me, or the top line vocals which would be Iarla, with various guests. So you have this equal shift that doesn't submerge on any side, it just goes along. Iarla had been working at home, and I was working on a song as an instrumental and it was a great honor that Iarla picked up on it, and said "that's fantastic! I want to sing on that!" But then what he did was just amazing! When you actually see it live, we bring this instrumental and vocal to fruition, both with equal strength.

Iarla: They're parallel, which is unusual. You don't often sing your absolute high point vocals over reels. They play a beautiful game together. To get back to that whole electronic thing, part of it all has to do with the background of people and where they're coming from. For example, James and I are very centered around melody, and James has expanded his interest in the technology over the years. He's got all the tools, he's got his own production center. Simon's language, if you like, is club music. And all of us would be listening to club music, pretty hard-core stuff. It's like taking shavings off the best ambient around, the best techno around, and doing it our own way.

Ben: You're fortunate to have that collection of people.

Iarla: It is about the people, the chemistry.

James: We've worked with other musicians, where you know instinctively that if they were there from the start, we wouldn't be here now. Fantastic players, but they just weren't in the same head space as the members of this band.

Iarla: I met up with Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, of Altan, recently. She's a very old pal of mine. She said "you guys are great! you're so open". I said, "do you really think so?" Because when you're involved in work, you don't have perspective, you're just doing your best. At the end of the day I genuinely feel we suffer from being open, not being closed.

Maireid: I can see why she would think that, since her music is so traditional.

Iarla: It was nice of her to say it in a positive way, because there are people who have difficulty with it. The general tendency among the solo members of this band is an iconoclastic approach. It's not one of adherence to dogma.

Maireid: Could I ask you a question as a traditional singer, singing mostly unaccompanied? Did you get very excited by the opportunity to work with this new amazing array of sound.

Iarla: I did. For a long time I felt what was happening to Irish music left sean nos out of things. Nobody wanted to do it. People scorned the idea of any serious recorded work done in the sean nos style. To find yourself a very young man in that world wasn't always the nicest experience. Particularly when my life up till then was quite dualistic. I'd been listening to traditional stuff, but since I was ten I had also been listening to people like Brian Eno, so I obviously had other ideas, but they were not shared by anybody I met in Ireland, ever, not once. Particularly among the music fraternity. There's a lot of experimentation going on in Ireland with rock music and old traditional music. The results were, and always are, sort of middle of the road, with things like folk/pop and Celtic rock. And then, a lot of it didn't really hit the mark in my opinion. If you actually look at what we do with the Afro-Celts, it's important for me to acknowledge that for myself, personally, it was the first form of music where I found it easy for me to do my thing within the structure on the music. That has to do with the nineties, and it has to do with the fact that it wasn't in Ireland. Now I don't scorn Ireland, I love Ireland and I love traditional music, I love everything about it. Ireland was a very difficult place to do anything avant-garde or fresh. You can make a thousand folk rock records in Ireland without any difficulty. I've got a number of specific people to thank and you know who they are. Real World's one of them, Simon Emmerson is the other. Then I have to thank the band, that is the Afro Celts, for having that vision. The time is right, too, the nineties, the end of the millennium, the great fanning out of possibilities, the great gathering in of musical genre, and the breaking down of the walls.

Maireid: What do you think of the resurrection of the ancient Celtic and African culture's wisdom?

Iarla: It's interesting, and ironic, that the likes of the techno heads and ambient blokes-and-blighters, to coin a phrase, are the ones who are resurrecting the Bardic tradition, ...not the merchants of M.O.R. (middle of the road). It's people from unlikely situations. No one would have predicted it. It's to do with luck as well, where you are on a particular day. It's culture, it's the timing, ..we couldn't have done this ten years ago. You'd get nasty phone calls. Just to finish that point, when we made the first album, I remember playing with some serious traditional people in Ireland. Tony McMahon, the accordion player, an old friend of mine, felt that the likes of Simon had made a real qualitative quantum leap in terms of his approach, for instance, on how to create a drone. In Ireland there was a tendency to just plug in the Prophet 5 synth and hold a note and that would do. You would hear that on every record, one after the other, and we're still hearing it in some places. James, Simon, and Martin did some intense work creating sounds using cutting edge approaches in order to allow us to do excellent work, ...not always the motivation where I grew up.

James: It's a love hate relationship with the word electronic. We've suffered from it. It seems that the only thing in the end that they pull us up for is the electronics, the electronic side of things. I adore electronic music making. I think they will be calling it traditional music in two or three hundred years time. If you get a fine balance, I like a mix of the old and the new, state of the art technology mixing with all these ancient mysterious instruments that appear on stage with us. I think, actually, the audience get off on that as well. Electronic music has just been born, in terms of history, and people just have to get over the stigma that it does create sometimes, and appreciate it. I didn't have a synthesizer until I was sixteen, but now kids are getting electronic instruments when they are six or seven.

Iarla: It's a question of critical mass, of culture evolving. The great freeing up of electronic music happens through contemporary musicians, not through the classical people, even though that's where it started.

James: There are as many bad traditional musicians as there are electronic musicians out there. In terms of concept, we don't intentionally sit down to write Celtic or African music. The strongest part of the music is the club culture. We write music that comes from the individuals we are involved with. You may call my music Celtic, but it has a lot of traits of other influences. There's bits of jazz, bits of rock, there's all sorts of permutations to just 'me'. Then, combine that with Iarla who has so many musical traits in his musical personality. We compose all our own stuff, ...and that comes from our history, our background.

Iarla: Although everybody has their own personal voyage, as a creative being, we've been fortunate in that the group, as it operates today, seems to satisfy a lot of those personal needs. That's not always the case in bands or groups. Everything we do, as an individual within the band, adds another layer of sediment. The thing that holds us together is the voyager element. My family were Russian Jews, NFalys people were griot travellers; the Celts, the Sheikhs - were all essentially Nomadic people.

James: Being in this band has changed a lot of peoples lives within the band. You talk to N'Faly, one of our African musicians, and he remembers when I walked past him in the Barbecon, where he was playing. I walked past and noticed him playing, and he joined the band from that moment, and it changed his life. He will talk about it, and often say, "I'll remember you all my life", and he will hug you. I'm very grateful that I was in that position, ..I'm honored that I was given a chance to meet this guy. He's basically saying, "If you hadn't walked by at that moment my life would be completely different". And it's the same for me. When Simon made that phone call, I got to play with the likes of Iarla and Ronan Browne, and being a part of the production team of Simon and Martin, have inspired me to change my way of actually thinking, and writing, because now I feel that I can certainly write with Iarla in mind and feel confident that it is going to be an amazing piece of music without having to do it all myself.

Mairéid: How about your feelings? How do you recognize the impact on them?

James: I think they are being completely released for me, whereas before they would be pent up. I would be apart from my music, from getting everything out. I felt destined that I would feel 'at home' in this band. I'm very happy! .......now let's have some more tea.

contact information:
official website: http://www.afroceltsoundsystem.com/
info on Iarla: https://realworldrecords.com/artist/403/iarla-lionaird/

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