Music

Chris McKhool's Sultans of String headline Burlington Performing Arts' Cultural Diversity Fest

This energetic musical collaboration will showcase traditional band instruments and string, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments of the full orchestra

With a weekend of Cultural Diversity celebrated at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre, you can catch Hamilton legendary musician and artist Tom Wilson teaming up with a 9–piece chamber orchestra for a special multi–disciplinary literary and musical event incorporating his bestselling memoir “Beautiful Scars” on Saturday. Meanwhile, on Sunday one of the newer Hamilton area residents takes to the stage with the first show under the new symphony name, and the newly appointed maestro Denis Mastromonaco conducting.

Chris McKhool was born in Ottawa and began studying classical violin at a young age. He had moved to Montreal to study psychology at McGill but later moved to study jazz at York University in Toronto. In 2004, McKhool co–founded the world–jazz–flamenco three time Juno nominees and Billboard charting Sultans of String and just a couple of years ago set up shop in Aldershot.

“Two years ago I moved to Aldershot with my wife Catherine and our daughter,” says McKhool. “We live around the corner from my wife’s mother’s home so with me being busy with music and all it was good to move somewhere where there was more support for the family. We’ve found the Hamilton/Burlington area is a pretty awesome place being nature lovers and all. We’ve got the lake and all the forests around us. We love the RBG and the marina. I love nature in a deep way and I find spiritual sustinence from nature and it’s a great place to raise a kid, too. 

“Tammy Fox, the director at BPAC, had the brainstorm to put this together,” adds McKhool. “We played the BPAC studio theatre a couple of years ago and sold it out but the main 700 seat theatre seemed a little daunting for a primarily instrumental world music band to fill so she came up with teaming us up with the symphony to showcase what we do and what the newly named symphony can do with their new conductor with some interesting guests to make some cool cultural connections.”

This energetic musical collaboration will showcase traditional band instruments and string, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments of the full orchestra for an upbeat performance of Celtic, Flamenco, Gypsy–jazz, Arabic and Cuban music and culture.

“I’m really excited about this show —  it’s going to be out–of–the–park absurd,” laughs McKhool about the upcoming collaboration with Sultans of String and the Burlington Symphony (formerly Symphony on the Bay). “I say absurd because a lot of the songs we’re going to be doing started off as jams between Kevin and I and taking them to the extreme of Western arts culture might seem ridiculous but it is so much fun.” 

Over the past fifteen years and six albums, McKhool and his bandmates — co–founding guitarist Kevin Laliberté, bassist Drew Birston, Cuban percussionist Rosendo Chendy Leon and second guitarist Eddie Paton — have thrilled audiences across the contintinent with their fusion of Celtic reels, flamenco, Gypsy jazz, Arabic, Cuban, and South Asian rhythms. These Sultans embody diversity but this weekend, they offer a special collaboration not only with the Burlington Symphony but also this performance includes special guest Pakistani–Canadian Anwar Khurshid on sitar and Shannon Thunderbird on vocals.

“We did an album with Anwar and toured across Canada in support of that but for this show those worlds are colliding, too,” says McKhool. “Anwar is coming on stage with us and the symphony, which is going to be awesome mostly because Anwar isn’t big on following song structure and that’s all that the symphony does. We’re going to do a lot of new stuff with a parade of guests. We take people on a whirlwind journey of world music styles. The conversations you can have musically between different cultures is interesting and it’s a great way to showcase conversations between people from different places and spaces. We’ll play music that is inspiring from all around the world. Anwar is made of magic and is so fun to watch on stage. Usually things can be improvised but with a symphony things stay more on track and they don’t wait for anything. They just follow their music but that’s why they’re so great — the challenge for us is filling in the gaps with the funness. 

“In 2013, we collaborated with an orchestra in Toronto and toured that across the country so we have experience with orchestra — just not with these pieces,” adds McKhool. “The way that scores are written, there are lots of great spots where the orchestra is featured and let them shine and show what they do. All of the music is Sultans of Strings and our arranger has included a lot of sweeping orchestral parts for them to solo and then we come back. We aim to have it like equal partners on stage.”

It’s interesting to learn how McKhool has integrated himself in the audience at the Artword Artbar and at the dining table at LaLuna among other Hamilton hotspots but this big splash is meant to showcase many different cultures combining globally. Cultural diversity is the driving force between most of the music that McKhool has created and as such, you can sit back and simply be entertained but don’t be surprised if you get a little educated as well. The philosophical mindset behind the music makes more sense when you learn the Sultans of String are fundraising partners with UNHCR, the United Nations Agency for Refugees (fundraise.unhcr.ca/sultansofstring) as well. 

“There are a lot of exciting things happening the whole weekend at BPAC for the Cultural Diversity Festival and it’s great to be a part of it,” says McKhool. “We’ve been raising funds for about the last year and talking a little about the UNHCR and what they do bringing clean water, medicine and shelter to the many people in need. There are more displaced people on earth than ever in history so we’re happy to raise some awareness and after our show people might check out some of the literature on their own and get involved however they’d like. 

“Making music is really fun but trying to sustain a band over many years is pretty tough so the only reason I can continue pushing it so hard is because it has meaning for us and for me personally,” adds McKhool. “I’m hoping that in a subtle way, what we’re doing can maybe teach and inspire people to think about things a little differently. I am very concerned with the politics of immigration in the US and Canada. We have to always be showing the beauty and the strength that comes from different ideas from around the world. By bringing together and people from different cultures and making beautiful sounds and a beautiful noise, maybe that’s an example we can show to our leaders and  community builders and this is the way to go forward.”



The Sultans of Swing play the Burlington Performing Arts Centre's Cultural Diversity Festival this Sunday September 29 at 4pm (Main Theatre, 440 Locust St, 905-681-6000, $39.50/$34.50 members. Click on https://burlingtonpac.ca/events/sultans-of-string 


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