The origins of The Imagined Village are intrinsically linked to the mind of its creator, Simon Emmerson. Simon’s passion for folk music was stoked during his adolescence when he would spend holidays sitting around campfires in the New Forest singing the songs of the 50s and early 60s folk revival. He was, and still is, a member of the Forest School Camp organization, which has promoted scouting for socialists since the 1930s.
His fondness of folk followed him into the late seventies when, as an activist punk musician he joined Scritti Politti and became part of the London squat scene. He and his friends would regularly gatecrash (or maybe walk in politely to) events at the Cecil Sharp House, where they would watch the likes of Martin Carthy, with guitar in hand and waver in voice. So enamoured was Green Gartside (erstwhile frontman of Scritti Politti) and some of the other band members, that they even made Carthy a hand with a giant finger that he could stick in his ear, classic folk singer style. It’s something that Carthy remembers with amusement to this day.
After his brief stint with Scritti Politti, Simon turned his attention to jazz. He became a founder member of Working Week and Weekend, and helped pioneer the Acid Jazz movement alongside Eddie Pillar and Gilles Peterson. He also played guitar on Everything But The Girl’s seminal debut album ‘Eden’. In those days he went under the name Simon Booth and had a plentiful rug of hair.
The significance of Simon’s jazz forays to the history of the Imagined Village is that future members, Simon Richmond, Ali Friend, and Andy Gangadeen, were also part of this new urban music scene coming from underground clubs across the UK. Andy was Working Week’s drummer through the late 80s, and Ali Friend first worked with Simon on the fourth Afro Celt Sound System ‘Seed’ when they needed a double bass player.
Simon Richmond made his name as trip hop producer Palm Skin Productions, a pivotal artist on the hugely influential Mo’ Wax label in the early nineties. Bassist Ali Friend was a founder member of radical instrumental jazz beats trio Red Snapper, who provided a string of influential releases for Warp Records. After the band momentarily split in 2002, Friend went onto work with his new band Clayhill as well as Beth Orton, amongst others.
Drummer Andy Gangadeen made his name with improvisational electronica band The Bays, of which Simon Richmond is also a member. They were famed for never rehearsing or recording any albums; stoically maintaining their independence from the music industry. Andy’s specialty is replicating the complex electronic beats of, say, drum n’ bass and broken beat, into a live setting. This is why he’s now part of the Chase & Status and Labrinth live set-up. He’s also been a session drummer for the likes of Lisa Stansfield and The Spice Girls, to name but a few.
After Emmerson left Working Week in the early nineties he became increasingly more interested in world music and eventually found himself producing stars such as Baaba Maal, Femi Kuti, and Manu Dibango. With the former he produced the 1992 album ‘Lam Toro’, and the Grammy nominated 1994 album ‘Firin’ In Fouta’. Aside from the obvious acclaim that entailed, the significance of the latter album was that, whilst making music with Baaba in Senegal, he was struck by the similarity between certain African melodies and traditional Irish airs. This is turn led to the formation of the Afro Celt Sound System. One of the things Baaba Maal instilled in him during his time in Senegal was a desire to explore his own heritage, which is one reason why, in the Afro-Celts, he embraced Celtic culture alongside his passion for African music. And it almost seems a natural progression to go from here to exploring in much finer detail English traditional music in The Imagined Village.
By 2004, when the idea of The Imagined Village was taking shape, some sections of the press were focusing on what constituted the English identity. The Scots, Welsh, and Irish all had strong cultural identities, which they wore proudly on their sleeves, but the English identity felt muddled. Waving Union Jack flags around seemed to smack of National Front tendencies. In some sections of society, people shied away from showing any patriotic verve at all. So exploring the English identity zeitgeist seemed a radical, or at least challenging thing to do. But buoyed on by reading Georgina Boyes book ‘The Imagined Village’ (winner of the Katherine Briggs Folklore Award in 1993), as well as Billy Bragg’s ‘The Progressive Patriot’ (described as a “revisionist celebration of Englishness”) and Paul Gilroy’s ‘After Empire or Convivial Culture’, Emmerson came up with the idea of getting artists who weren’t normally associated with the folk music scene, to re-imagine old folk songs and put them into a contemporary setting, thus exploring old and new ideas of what it meant to be English.
However the original concept mutated as he set about finding likeminded collaborators, with some prominent folk artists keen on collaborating with non-traditional folk musicians. He assembled an impressive cast, including Eliza and Martin Carthy, Paul Weller, Chris Wood, John Copper, Benjamin Zephaniah, Billy Bragg, Sheila Chandra, Transglobal Underground, Tunng, The Young Copper Family, plus ceilidh bands Tiger Moth and Gloworm.
Eliza Carthy was one of the first people onboard. Simon met her at Dranouter, an annual folk and roots festival in Belgium. This was in 2003. He was with the Afro Celts and she was there as part of the Big Session with the Oyster band and various other guests. When he told her his plans she was very keen to be involved. This isn’t so surprising considering that she has for many years been one of the most forward thinking folk musicians, with a string of mould breaking solo albums, such as ‘Red Rice’ (1998) and ‘Anglicana’ (2002). Both were nominated for Mercury Music Awards, and both stretch the boundaries of what people perceive an English folk musician to be, as do her recent albums ‘Dreams of Breathing Underwater’ and last year’s excellent ‘Neptune’.
The self-titled debut album was released in September 2007 on Realworld Records, to critical acclaim. Songs such as ‘John Barleycorn’ featuring Martin, Eliza, and Paul Weller on vocals (what is good enough for Traffic...), a radical, dubbed-up, modern day version of ‘Tam Lyn’ featuring Zephaniah, the Billy Bragg-penned ‘Hard Times of Old England’, and the epic Transglobal Underground, Dhol-driven reinterpretation of ‘Cold, Hailey, Rainy Night’ (a song first published 200 years ago), became instant classics. Emmerson then set about the daunting task of trying to replicate the album live.
He enlisted the help of fellow Afro-Celt Johnny Kalsi (percussionist and dhol drummer extraordinaire), Andy Gangadeen, bassist Francis Hylton, classically trained cellist Barney Morse-Brown, and Transglobal Underground’s sitar player Sheema Mukherjee. Eliza and Martin Carthy, Billy Bragg, Chris Wood, and Sheila Chandra shared the vocal duties. At their first rehearsals at the Realworld Studios in Box, Wiltshire, just five days before their debut show at WOMAD, things gelled together remarkably quickly. Afro-Celts engineer Martin Russell was also brought in to handle Front of House mixing; a vital addition considering how many musicians were on stage, especially when, on occasion, the Young Coppers swelled the ranks to 20 for a rousing version of ‘Cold Hailey Rainy Night’. Incidentally this song went on to win a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Traditional Song. The band also won three Hancock Awards in 2008, voted by members of the ‘Talk A While’ website, which has one of the UK’s most popular folk forums. They won Best Album, Best Original Song for Cold, Hailey, Rainy Night, and Best Traditional Song for Tam Lyn Retold. Benjamin Zephaniah was at hand to pick up the award for Tam Lyn at the Cambridge Folk Festival, where he proudly told onlookers that he was the only Rasta English folkie there.
The Imagined Village had gone from being a well-crafted studio project to a formidable live act capable of producing show-stopping performances such as on Later with Jools Holland. Throughout the UK tour and numerous festival appearances, the band were gelling ever tighter as a unit, so it was unsurprising when, for their next album ‘Empire & Love’ (2010), they shed the guests and became a band. There were a few personnel shifts however. Ali Friend replaced Francis Hylton on bass. Simon Richmond came in on keyboards, sundry electronics, and Theremin. And sadly Billy Bragg had too many other commitments to be involved on a regular basis. But boosting the vocal ranks was the critically acclaimed folk singer Jackie Oates. She appears on the beautiful ballad ‘Lark in the Morning’, and was later to become a full paid-up member of the group.
‘Empire & Love’ saw the band’s emphasis shift towards a more reflective acoustic/traditional approach. The electronic trickery was still there but used in far more subtle ways, due in no small part to Simon Richmond’s sympathetic approach towards what he terms, “folktronica”. Emmerson also made the bold move to set up his own record label with Lush stores owner Mark Constantine. Although there was a deal with Realworld on the table, he felt it was in the band’s best interests to take control of their own affairs. So with total artistic freedom and a strong band aesthetic in tow, the group set about exploring the album’s two central themes. What emerged was as a Napoleonic war song (‘My Son John’) recontextualized by Martin Carthy to the present day Afghan conflict, and a song about Northern steam weaving factories (‘The Handweaver And The Factory Maid’) amongst other songs exploring the theme of Empire. Love is very much the focal point of ‘Scarborough Fair’, as it is in ‘Lark in the Morning’. And love amongst the stars is the theme for their classic reworking of ‘Space Girl’, originally penned by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger for a 1952 ballad-opera. Their version however is closest to Shirley Collins’ later version (with a bongo solo to die for).
Making an Imagined Village album is not a speedy process, and is often beset by problems. This can certainly be said of their latest album ‘Bending the Dark’. After they came off the road in late 2010, discussions inevitably turned towards the future. It was Chris Wood who suggested that, to keep the band going, they needed to stop covering songs from the Martin Carthy songbook and start writing their own material. It was a sentiment that Martin shared. So they agreed on setting up a series of writing sessions, with the intention of performing them live and then recording the results later.
This plan hit a roadblock when Martin’s partner (and Eliza’s mother) Norma Waterson’s serious health issues meant that he was unable to go on the next set of tour dates in 2011. The band decided to do it without him, but with proceeds going towards helping the family. Thankfully Norma recovered and Martin promised to learn the songs and be back on the road with them to promote the next album.
Following the 2011 live dates, Chris Wood decided to take a sabbatical to focus on his own material. They’d temporarily lost one of their most important frontmen, but gained another in the form of folk siren Jackie Oates. Then Simon Emmerson’s regular engineer, mixer and co-producer Mass, was unable to work because of his father’s serious illness, and so production on the new album ground to a halt. It can’t be stressed how important someone like Mass is to making albums as complex as the Imagined Village ones. But luckily Simon Richmond stepped up to the plate, not only helping produce the record with Simon sr., but also writing much of the original music that formed a template for the group to mould into fully realised album tracks. They were also joined by mixing engineer Paul Grady, as efforts moved from Emmerson’s idyllic Dorset home studio, to the legendary Strongroom studios in London in October 2011 and January 2012.
Emmerson says that they wanted to record an album that reflects; “both the fun and energy we generate as a live unit. Plus our respective skills, eccentricities, and unique identities as song writers, arrangers, and musicians.” And no Imagined Village album would be complete without a few added extras, this time in the shape of the fabulous Kick Horns who he’d previously worked with on Baaba Maal’s ‘Firin’ in Fouta’ and an early Femi Kuti demo for Mango Records, that sadly never saw the light of day. They give a fabulous afro-beat swing to ‘New York Trader’. The album also features regular Eliza Carthy cohort Saul Rose on accordion for the track ‘Washing Song’.
Such is the democratic way they operate, that various band members penned tracks, which is why there is such a variety of styles on offer, such as the classic seventies crime drama feel of ‘The Guvna’, written by Ali Friend, and the Bhangra-meets-Roy Budd epic ‘Get Kalsi’, written by ... well, guess who... if you ever want to hear what drum n’ bass dhol drumming sounds like, then stick around for the gripping finale.
The title track is a 12-minute opus written by Sheema Mukherjee for the 20/12 Cultural Olympiad. 20 pieces were commissioned as part of a new project called ‘New Music 20x12’ inspired by the Olympics and Paralympics. It starts with swinging gypsy fiddle refrain and gradually mutates into a sitar and violin folk melody, before ending up with a full-on Andy Gangadeen and Johnny Kalsi drum-off. It’s an aural snapshot that the band has described as one of the most exciting moments of the album’s recording sessions.
The band is now about to embark on a tour of the UK and various other festival appearances across Europe. Sadly due to commitments with Chase & Status, Andy Gangadeen is not able to join them on the tour, but he will be ably deputized by Ged Lynch. Lynch is Peter Gabriel’s regular live drummer, and has also played with Goldfrapp, Tom Jones, and Seth Lakeman. He was also a founder member of post-Happy Monday’s band, Black Grape, and will be a welcome addition to the group.
Words: Phil Meadley