If you’re a music fan who truly believes that “variety is the spice of life,” then plan to satiate your appetite by dining on the sonic smorgasbord being cooked up January 11th at Hamilton Place. That’s the night Canada’s own Sultans of String arrive to celebrate the release of their high–octane worldbeat–jazz symphonic mash up, SYMPHONY!, live on stage at the Molson Canadian Studio.
Billed as “Canada’s ambassadors of musical diversity,” the Sultans are a collective of five virtuosos whose tasty tapestry of Spanish Flamenco, Arabic folk, Cuban rhythms and French Manouches Gypsy–jazz have quickly earned them a loyal following around the globe. Since their formation in 2007, The Sultans have enjoyed unprecedented international success for a Canadian roots act, hitting number one on world/international charts in North America, winning the Canadian Folk Music Award for Instrumental Group of the Year and earning first place in the International Songwriting Competition. Their sound is an eclectic hybrid of musical influences that combine to deliver the spiciest blend of roots music your ears have ever tasted. It’s a musical menu that Sultan’s co–founder Chris McKhool says owes its evolution to the cultural makeup of the Greater Toronto/Hamilton area where it was eventually developed.
“The kind of musical blending that can happen in the GTHA is really quite unique around the world,” explained McKhool, a JUNO–nominated 6–string violinist who, along with flamenco guitarist Kevin Laliberte, founded the Sultans. “To have this many people from around the world immigrating to this area, holding on to their musical influences — it’s not like the American melting pot. Walk down the street (in Toronto) and you’ll hear African music, jazz, rhumba, Cuban rhythms, Indian music. It’s really like nowhere else on earth. It’s a great place to learn.”
The most recent lessons learned by McKhool and company were the result of the challenges that inevitably arose during the planning and recording of SYMPHONY! The ambitious project saw songs from the first three Sultans of String releases recorded with full orchestral accompaniment. And while McKhool agrees that the string–based instrumentation at the core of the Sultans’ sound was a natural fit for a symphonic collaboration, it didn’t make arranging the songs any easier.
“The SYMPHONY! album was the most complicated thing I’ve done in my life,” reflected the classically–schooled McKhool, who grew up in a Lebanese–Egyptian house listening to, amongst other things, his older brother’s YES, Genesis and ELP albums. “I think one of the greatest challenges was just deciding what the role would be for everyone. We had to decide if the orchestra was going to be there to sweeten the sound, to just add pads and make (the songs) sound more lush, or to give (the orchestra) a bigger role. The danger was in the Sultans getting lost in the mix.”
McKhool gives full credit for the majestic sound on SYMPHONY! to arranger/composer Rebecca Pellett, who he says managed to strike “the perfect balance” on the recording.
“We play instrumental music, with each song telling a story. That was not so much of a stretch for Rebecca to make sound more epic. She’s done a lot of arranging (Imax, Toronto Symphony Orchestra). She was really able to bring these beautiful, sweeping grand string parts to our music.”
Of all the Sultan of String songs benefitting from their new arrangements on SYMPHONY!, McKhool takes the most personal satisfaction from the resulting remix of “Road To Kfarmishki”, a track from the group’s third CD, MOVE.
“(The Road to Kfarmishki) was inspired by a trip I look with my elderly father, who was 80 at the time,” reflects McKhool. “We landed in Lebanon, went to Beirut and eventually to this tiny village (Kfarmishki). We essentially started looking for people who looked like my dad, and within five minutes of being in the village we found my father’s oldest cousin. He showed us the stone house where my grandfather grew up. When Rebecca added the symphonic parts, it brings such an emotional climax (to the song).”
Experiencing a profound emotional connection to the music is what endears people to Sultans of String, especially when listening from the audience at one of their critically acclaimed live performances. McKhool, Laliberte and bandmates Eddie Paton (2nd guitar), Drew Birston (bass) and Chendy Leon (percussion) deliver a sonic assault powered by fiery violin runs, kinetic guitar riffs, gargantuan grooves and ethereal electronic jams. With the band’s radio airplay limited to the odd college station and the occasional spotlight on the CBC, McKhool knows the stage is the best way for the Sultans to continue to win over new fans.
“Absolutely, when you’re talking about how to get younger people to appreciate our music, (live performance) is the one thing. You can download music; you can watch music videos on YouTube. But the one thing you cannot replace, you cannot steal, the thing you cannot feel, is the rush of a performance without coming out to see it live. It’s the one branch of the music industry that has survived in a healthy way over the last 10 years. Just seeing people in our audience, the look on their faces, singing, dancing along — there’s no better feeling than seeing your audience impacted by the music you play.” V
Sultans of String Jan. 11, 8pm at Molson Canadian Studio