The Phoenix, Exeter
Saturday, 12th November 2016
In a notably bad week when a racist and misogynist opportunist demagogue somehow persuaded the United States electorate to elect him President, AND we lost a great poet/songwriter in Leonard Cohen, it’s just as well Afro Celt Sound System roll into town to entertain and transport us in to a sparkling musical world where there are no walls, certainly no dodgy hair pieces and probably very little chance of endorsement from the KKK!
Arising out of the musical melting pot of Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios 20 years ago, Afro Celt Sound System have released 6 albums fusing, as their name suggests, African and Celtic influences in a heady cocktail of dance beats, rock and samples. Founding member Simon Emmerson has teamed up with other long-standing members, N’Faly Kouyate, Griogair Labhruidh and Johnny Kalsi to recently release the first Afro Celt Sound System album in over 10 years, The Source. They were coming to the end of a very successful U.K. tour and played to an excitable and packed Exeter crowd.
The atmospheric opening song Beware Soul Brother gradually conjured up an entrancing ambience with the smouldering voice of Riognach Connolly building in intensity with the subtle backing of a skilled band, especially Griogair Labhruidh on Highland Pipes. The pace really started to pick up in The Communicator, particularly as Eòghann MacEanruig’s fiddle took up the lead and a few hundred feet at the Phoenix suddenly could not help but start dancing like some sort of crazed marionettes.
N’Faly Koyate from Guinea Bissau then charmed the crowd with his explanation of the importance in West African culture of his instrument, the stringed Kora, in conveying his society’s history down the generations through music, which he demonstrated with a delicate solo. It was a show largely dominated by songs from the new album but, such were the infectious rhythms, this was not an issue for a crowd just up for the craic, appreciating good music and a party atmosphere. However, the title track to their 1999 second album, Release, did take the crowd back to a great song that originally featured Sinead O’Connor, her part sung beautifully in Exeter by Riognach with fine support from Val Etienne. Higher Love from The Source featured N’Faly on vocals, but also showcased the all round chemistry that this band has developed over this tour, alongside some dazzling artwork projected on the backdrop.
Sound Magic from 1996 was the first Afro Celt Sound System album, and is still considered their best by many fans so it was especially exciting to hear them launch into an energetic Whirl-Y-Reel 1 which had the whole crowd dancing along in glee – a fine way to close the first set and ensure the bar takings were particularly healthy in the break.
[Photos by Leo Trimming]
The second set saw the Afro Celts continue to pick up the pace with the frenetic Desert Billy, introduced very amusingly by the legendary dhol drummer Johnny Kalsi, who engaged great audience participation in the chanting. Honey Bee was a particular showcase for the remarkable Riognach on flute and then some very sassy vocals as the band swaggered and rolled through a marvellous number. Earlier N’Faly had led a swirling and spiralling Cascade after explaining the issue his homeland had with clean water sources, and encouraging donations from the crowd towards that cause. Classic song Colossus from 2001 album Further in Time continued to build the tempo in a sweltering venue – heat generated by a band on fire and a crowd ignited with the joy of the music. The inter-song banter also added to the jovial atmosphere with Riognach sharing that she now knew what a rotisserie chicken felt like!
Johnny Kalsi stepped forward appropriately to introduce Kalsi Breakbeat with his Dhol drum (and attached crowd camera!) to the fore as the Exeter crowd was carried on an intoxicating trip, incorporating Asian, African and dance beats. Just when the crowd thought the beat could not get any more frantic and hypnotising the Afro Celts then launched into Riding the Waves from Release, which left the crowd going rather bonkers at the end. It did seem that the band were genuinely touched and impressed by the ecstatic reaction, and compared it favourably and rather comically with their experience at Yeovil when apparently someone in the front row knitted during the show! There was no danger of any jumpers being produced that night in Exeter, particularly as the band returned to their first album in the encore to perform the wonderful Dark Moon, High Tide, and then blew the crowd away with a frantic Whirl-Y-Reel 2.
There does appear to be a schism in the Afro Celts world with a regrettable dispute over ownership of the band name, but frankly I suspect no-one gave it a second thought tonight as they just let themselves go to enjoy the wonderful musicianship and fascinating interweaving of several different musical threads in a rich tapestry of sound. All in all it was a fantastic gig, and it lifted the hearts and moved the feet of all present.
It was particularly positive to see a band encompassing members with Black, White, Asian, African, Irish, Scottish and English backgrounds in one band, united by musical chemistry and joyful expression receiving a rapturous response from a diverse crowd of young and old – there is simply no place for any Walls in the world of the Afro Celt Sound System.
Beware Soul Brother
N’Faly’s (Kora Solo)
Soul Of A Sister
Riding The Waves
Dark Moon, High Tide
Simon Emmerson – Guitars & Cittern
Griogair Labhruidh – Vocals, Rap, Highland Pipes/Whistles & Electric Guitar
Johnny Kalsi – Dhol Drums, Percussion & Beats
N’Faly Kouyate – Kora, Balafon, Percussion & Vocals
Robbie Harris – Bodhran & Percussion
Riognach Connolly – Vocals & Flute
Eòghann MacEanruig – Fiddle
Ged Lynch – Drums
Simon Richmond – Keyboards & Electronica
Val Etienne – Backing Vocals