A world music fusion of African and Celtic traditions with electronic dance elements, Afro Celt Sound System rose to international acclaim in the late 1990s. Spearheaded by British musician and producer Simon Emmerson, the revolving collective of musicians enjoyed success with a series of albums on Real World Records including 1999's Volume 2: Release and 2005's Volume 5: Anatomic. Following a hiatus, the group returned to touring in 2010 but split into two factions over a dispute regarding rights to the band's name. Emmerson claimed primary ownership of ACSS in 2016, releasing a comeback album, The Source, followed two years later by Flight.
In 1995, intrigued by the idea of marrying the musical traditions of these two disparate cultures with contemporary electronic elements, Emmerson brought together several members of Afro-pop star Baaba Maal's group with whom he had just worked and paired them with several prominent Irish folk musicians. A week's worth of inspired jam sessions at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios yielded the unique and lively fusion that became the basis for the group's first album, Volume 1: Sound Magic. Released by Real World Records in September 1996, the album featured a host of musicians including kora player Kaouding Cissoko, flute and mandolin player Ronan Browne, Uilleann piper Davy Spillane, percussionists Massamba Diop and James McNally, vocalists Iarla Ó Lionáird and Ayub Ogoda, keyboardists Jo Bruce and Martin Russell, and many other players, with Emmerson producing the sessions and playing guitar. Over the next few years, ACSS became a staple of the world music scene, playing festivals, raves, and clubs. Just prior to beginning sessions for their follow-up, keyboardist Jo Bruce died of an asthma attack. Soldiering on, a core lineup of Emmerson, McNally, Lionáird, Russell, Celtic harpist Myrdhin, percussionist Moussa Sissokho, and vocalist/kora player N'Faly Kouyate recorded 1999's Volume 2: Release, which featured a prominent guest vocal spot from Sinéad O’Connor and earned the band a Grammy nomination.
Released in 2001, Volume 3: Further in Time, saw a decided shift toward the group's African influence and featured both Robert Plant and Peter Gabriel, the latter of whom sang on the single "When You're Falling," which received significant airplay in the U.S. After briefly changing their name to Afro Celts for 2003's Seed, they reverted back to Afro Celt Sound System for the 2004 remix album, Pod, and subsequent studio album, 2005's Volume 5: Anatomic. When the tour cycle for Anatomic ended in 2007, ACSS went on a hiatus while its primary members worked on other projects including Emmerson and British-Indian percussionist Johnny Kalsi's similarly-minded multicultural project The Imagined Village. Reuniting in 2010 for a series of festival dates promoting their Real World-issued anthology, Capture: 1995-2010, they continued to perform together occasionally until 2015 when an internal dispute caused the band to split into two factions both jockeying for rights to work under the ACSS name.
In 2016, it was decided that Emmerson, Kalsi, and Kouyate would continue using the Afro Celt Sound System name while Russell and McNally would move forward with a different project of their own. That same year, The Source was releasing, marking the first ACSS album under this new configuration and celebrating the band's 20th anniversary. They returned again in 2018 with Flight, which again revolved around the primary trio and included the usual wealth of guest players, this time out highland piper Griogair, fiddler Ewen Henderson, and the African Gospel Singers. ~ Timothy Monger