Afro Celt Sound System formed in 1995 when Simon Emmerson, working with Baaba Maal, noticed the similarity between an African melody and an Irish air. Capture, a collection celebrating the group’s 15th anniversary, attests to the brilliance of this musical insight. The compendium is divided into two discs, Verse and Chorus, the latter comprising the group’s instrumental offerings, and the former being a collection of “songs.”
Chorus is a mixed bag. It kicks off with the brilliant, chilled-out Mojave. Minimal vocal lines float like vapour over a gently undulating wash of strings. A flute takes over the melody as the background rhythms become more urgent, layer upon layer building into a storming spectacular. Both incarnations of Whirl-Y-Reel impress, as a toe-tapping Irish fiddle is thrillingly spun in unexpected directions by an African percussion section.
However, the electronic elements are overdone at times. All the zapping and squelching of Urban Aire/Big Cat is occasionally cool but a little incongruous, whereas Deep Channel seems unsure about whether it belongs at a Ceilidh or on a disused Kraftwerk track. Despite the slightly dull Sure As Not, the instrumental side contains some visionary gems. The dystopian opening of Cyberia gathers like a coming storm as layer upon layer swirls into the mix, while the slightly edgier Shadowman is ridiculously danceable.
Verse eclipses Chorus as the disc where the band really sparkles. Lagan emerges from a hazy smokescreen of percussion and strings like a sunrise, while the masterful Rae & Christian remix of Persistence Of Memory makes time stand still with its now-iconic rippling chords. Further In Time is this side’s only weak link, typified by a scratchy, jarring beginning whose electronic elements are slightly overdone; it sounds more like the background music to a bad computer game than beautiful fusion.
The group’s history of truly magnificent collaborations make up the crown jewels of the compilation. Release is coloured by the haunting tones of Sinead O’Connor, while at the other end of the scale, Mother is heart-wrenchingly moving as Dorothee Munyaneza’s gorgeously rich voice blossoms into every line. The track – written for the film Hotel Rwanda – carries a nearly tangible element of raw poignancy. Indeed, Munyaneza survived the horrific genocide on which the film is based.
Go On Through, which features Liam O’Flynn and Pina Kollars, is luxuriantly laid back, washed with swelling strings, and low-key percussion drives the song without overpowering it. On Rise Above, Mundy’s husky vocals don’t so much rise as soar above the frenetically-shuffling rhythms simmering underneath, occasionally making way for the fragility of a violin, which itself forces through to erupt into a rabble-rousing reel. Forget cultural importance and scoring of sophistication points – most importantly, this is a tune.
The highlight is the group’s glorious collaboration with Peter Gabriel. On first hearing the uplifting, cheery When You’re Falling, the reaction might well be “Where’s the Afro? Where did they put the Celt?” And here inlays the beauty of Afro Celt Sound System. The harmonies in the chorus are coloured by a few darker Irish touches, and while they might not stick out to the post-Paul Simon generation, the jumping African rhythm is everywhere. There is no need for the overt.
Fusion music has a horrible tendency to become caricature-like, flinging together disparate styles willy-nilly so that those who “get it” can nod along to claim sophistication and idiosyncrasy. Indeed, the danger for this supergroup was that their output would descend into a crass meeting of Riverdance with The Lion King. Thankfully, nothing of the sort took place, and the true success of Afro Celt Sound System lies in their subtlety.