Our recent Featured Artist of the Month review of Subcontinental Drift, the new album from Toronto-based Sultans of String, highlighted the band’s rich mix of international flavours. Making the most of influences that include Indian classical, Spanish Flamenco, Arabic folk, Cuban rhythms, and French Gypsy-jazz; Sultans of String compose, arrange and perform music that transcends global and cultural boundaries.
As the band prepare for their first extensive tour of Ireland and the UK this month, it seemed the perfect chance to catch up with founding band member, Chris McKhool. Despite a pressing schedule, Chris was happy to talk expansively about the ethos behind the uplifting music presented on Subcontinental Drift and his own musical background.
If listening to the music doesn’t provide enough evidence, a brief look at the sleeve notes for Subcontinental Drift will confirm that Sultans of String, as a band, whole-heartedly embrace Canada’s multicultural policies.
“I feel so lucky to live here in Canada. The music scene here in Toronto provides so much inspiration for me, with music coming here from all around the globe. Both Rosendo ‘Chendy’ Leon, our Cuban percussionist and Anwar Khurshid, our sitar player, are immigrants to Canada and very grateful to have found a home here. In Pakistan, there are certain religious factions that would not want to have any music playing at all, and in the village where Anwar grew up, he was not allowed to play his sitar in public. The sitar was not only an instrument he loved, but he felt like it was his actual voice. It’s not dissimilar from Chendy’s story, drawn to Canada as a place where he can be free, to speak his voice and to live his truth and not worry about being arrested for having an opinion contrary to the government. With both these band members, and all our guests, we’ve created a space where they can be themselves artistically and personally. Living in as diverse a country as Canada (and our now hometown Toronto), that celebrates multiculturalism in policy and practice, we are encouraged to highlight all aspects of ourselves. And when you hear Anwar play the sitar, you realize that’s really who he is. To deny the expression – political, musical – of a human being is really to quash their soul.
“In a way, with this band, we are like a microcosm of Toronto which is in turn a microcosm of the world … because we have many musical worlds coming together, and sometimes they understand each other and sometimes they don’t. And that’s part of the artistic process too. Even more so when we’re combining these seemingly disparate music styles. And yet there’s enough common ground to create something new and something exciting that hopefully hasn’t been said before. That’s kind of the Canadian ideal of multiculturalism, and the sense of the mosaic (as opposed to the “melting pot”). You look up at a stained glass window, and you see all those beautiful colours and they all come together to make one beautiful image. And that’s what we’re trying to do, sort of on a daily basis in our lives and with our music”.
Chris’s mosaic analogy is very fitting. It’s hardly surprising he’s so in tune with his homeland’s cultural diversity, the story of his own family history is woven into that rich tapestry. The name McKhool isn’t a sign of Celtic ancestry, it was the result of a misunderstanding when his Lebanese Grandfather (Makhoul) first came to Canada. His mother came to Canada from Egypt and, as he explained, the cultural mix has provided a life-long influence on his music…
“Growing up, I listened to a few Arabic music albums from my family’s record collection. My mother was also a piano teacher so I was exposed to music all of the time. About 10 years ago I wanted to explore more of my Middle Eastern musical heritage and went to an Arabic music retreat and started learning more about how to play some of the Arabic scales and rhythms. I dove into this music and sought to integrate it into the sound of our band. A recent trip with my father to our ancestral homeland of Lebanon further cemented this artistic goal and resulted in some music, like the song ‘Road to Kfarmishki’ that we recorded on BBC TV . Because this is global music and music that comes to Canada from around the world, there is a theme of travel and celebration of multicultural stylings on this album and our earlier releases”.
Education is another important aspect of Chris’s work as a musician. For the past twenty years he’s brought his Fiddlefire! (fiddlefire.com) project to over 1 million children across Canada’s concert halls, festivals and schools. I was keen to find out about the project, and Chris was just as keen to explain.
“Working with youth through music education has been a lifelong passion. They are inspirational to me in every way, especially their openness to learning. They love music, all its stylings, instruments, sounds, and rhythms. The FiddleFire! kids show is an opportunity to open their ears to rumba flamenco form Spain, Gypsy-jazz from Europe, blues, classical, funk, world beat, and Celtic fiddling, and the kids also get to come up on stage and play percussion instruments from around the globe! What’s equally motivating for me in doing the young audience shows is that the kids are super engaged, not just in the music but in the issues of their own communities. We adults think they are not aware of things like that but they are. My Earth, Seas & Air, and Holidays of The Global Village shows meet them where they’re at and engage them on environmentalism and multiculturalism. We have a lot of fun and also can help make a difference!
“The other thing is that kids, just like adults, need art to make sense of their lives and the world around them. For the last ten years I have been working with an organisation called ArtsCan Circle (www.artscancircle.ca). It is a charity dedicated to linking creative artists with Indigenous youth at risk in Canada. It is very inspiring to watch a group of youth transform while learning music or writing a song with them about their experiences”.
A Place to Call Home on Subcontinental Drift confirms the importance Chris attaches to environmental issues…
Progress is the axle string that turns the worldy wheel
Anything without a voice is a fuel that they will steal
Which prompted me to ask him about another project. An 800 strong bicycle bell orchestra?
“Environmental issues are really important to me and I thought what a fun way to get together with people in Toronto, to create the world’s biggest bicycle bell orchestra, to highlight how easy steps like leaving your car at home more often and getting on a bike, can really move us all in the right direction of sustainability. Ever since I was a little kid, I poured through the Guinness Book of World Records, fascinated by the crazy achievements that people work towards”.
So how did you do it?
“So what we did, we gathered over 800 people at Yonge-Dundas Square, kind of like Toronto’s Time Square, and we split them up into three groups, each representing one part of a samba rhythm, and we arranged everyone to play together while we sang one of my eco-songs “Walk & Roll”. It was a hoot, and we even had our Mayor up on stage with us ringing his bell! A great way to get the message across that together we can make some beautiful noise to create change”.
Moving on to the music of Sultans of String, there’s a strong sense that the host of different musical traditions referenced on the album provide inspiration just as much as raw material. The Sindhi heroic tale Ho Jamalo, provided a starting point – but the global musical adventure goes far beyond the song’s origin. Would you agree that, rather than taking music itself from a source, you’re taking inspiration for your own music from those sources?
“What this band is about, more than anything, is telling stories about the incredible people we meet, and the places we discover, and those moments that shape us as people. So you are right, we use these different musical styles as inspirational launching points, and we will often try a song we are writing in many different grooves, feels, and styles until we find the one that really tells the story we are looking for. Being able to draw from many styles is like having a lot of paints in your paint-box. And a lot of the success actually comes from trial and error”.
The band members’ diverse backgrounds, and wide musical experience, certainly provide ample variety.
“Everyone comes to the band with such a rich background. Our bass player Drew Birston has performed with dozens of jazz acts as well as pop superstars like Chantal Kreviazuk, and our guitarists Kevin Laliberte and Eddie Paton have spent 5 years travelling around the globe performing with folks like Jesse Cook, working on their rumba flamenca chops. ‘Chendy’ Leon, our percussionist who I mentioned is originally from Cuba, brings a whole slew of world rhythms to the group. I spent a few years performing with a Gypsy-jazz band called Club Django, as well as being influenced by East Coast fiddling and Middle-Eastern music. And of course Anwar brings the sounds of India and Pakistan to the mix. When we’re writing songs, we throw all these influences into the musical blender and hit puree, to see what comes out”.
In addition to those established band members. Sultans of String have always welcomed guests to their studio work and live shows. Anwar Khurshid‘s contributions, though, seem even more significant. Was this the first time you’ve had a guest collaborate to this extent on writing the music itself?
“Yes in the past we have brought in guests to perform on tracks that we had already laid bed tracks for. Working with Anwar was the first time that we as a band actually wrote with and for a special guest on all of the songs. I have always loved the sound of the sitar, even when I was a kid I went to see Ravi Shankar perform in Ottawa where I grew up”.
So were those possibilities apparent as soon as, or even before, you met?
“When I met Anwar and heard his music, but maybe even more importantly discovered his curious and compassionate soul, I knew I wanted to work with him”!
The band itself seems every bit as adaptable as their music. You’ve been known to play as anything from a duet to full orchestra.
“Yeah! Just as we love all kinds of musical styles, we like to offer different band sizes to fit the vibe, format and room. I joke that we are modular, like Ikea. For really small series or house concerts, playing just me and Kevin with violin and guitar is perfect and we love the intimacy of these concerts. Also Kevin is such a tasty guitar player, and I love hearing his playing on its own once in a while. We also love playing in jazz clubs, folk coffeehouses, open fields at music festivals, or in the larger performing arts centres where get showcase our music that we have had arranged and scored for orchestras. That’s a personal thrill for me, because my entry into music as a kid was classical music, and I used to perform in a youth orchestra, so for me that project brings my music full circle”.
Blowin’ in the Wind is just so full of joy, especially with Anwar’s vocal and the choir. Was Joy the initial approach to the song or did that develop along with the arrangement?
“I’m so glad you like it and that you came away with that impression. I think joy but also hope is what we are going for. Dylan’s song is so amazing and classic, and is at once sombre and hopeful. And like we always do with covers, we wanted to offer a musical interpretation treatment that honoured the song but which also expressed something quite different, so it was fun to give it a bit of a Bhangra vibe. I wonder what Dylan would think”?
Speaking of Joy – Waleed Abdulhamid‘s vocal on Ho Jamalo is a complete surprise on the first listening and so uplifting – genius! How did that come about?
“That was a great surprise for us too! When we were first creating a demo of that song, Waleed was actually jamming with us on the bass, as he is a good friend of Anwar. He started improvising this vocal part, and I was so moved, I knew it had to make its way in the final song. Waleed is originally from Sudan but now finds his home in Toronto, and he possesses one of those rare voices that instantly sets you in a place and time”. Are we likely to hear more of Waleed? “We are currently working on, wait for this, a world music Christmas album, and we are featuring Waleed in a duet with Richard Bona on our Kwanzaa song. Very magical”.
A world music Christmas album? So you still see a healthy number of musical avenues out there for you and the band to explore?
“I often find myself up at night, not being able to sleep, thinking of all the possibilities with this band. In my head, we are working on the Christmas album, a duo album, an album with Turkish Roma musicians that we are currently writing with, and a collaboration with Nashville artists. My wife thinks I need a vacation”.
We’ve discussed Internationalism, diversity, environmental issues. They all play an important part in the music Sultans of String produce. The aspect that comes across strongest, though (perhaps because of all these different factors) is joy, fun. Is it fun, ultimately, that makes Sultans of String so special?
“You know, I really love the guys in the band, we have a great time when we are hanging and making music together. I really am blessed. Also I think because we have so much fun as a band, whether we’re rehearsing, recording, performing live, that can’t help but make its way into the music. We hope that our fans feel that every time they play our music or come to one of our shows”.
Which brings us to your impending tour of the UK & Ireland, is this your biggest tour so far here?
“Yes, this is our first extensive tour. About 4 years ago we played Celtic Connections—what an amazing festival – and we also played a couple other spots. We were lucky to also play BBC and RTE at that time. This tour we’ll be doing interviews with them again and a lot of great festivals and venues. If folks want to see where we are, we are updating out tour schedule (http://sultansofstring.com/calendar/) on a daily basis. We will also be tweeting and updating Instagram and Facebook as we go”.
Sultans of String, including special guest Anwar Khurshid, start their UK/Ireland tour at the The Middlewich Folk and Boat Festival on 18th June. Over the next two weeks there are a further 12 chances to catch them live. It promises to be a memorable experience.
Subcontinental Drift is out now on McKool.
Sultans of String UK & Ireland Tour
Sultans of String are touring the UK from mid-June with special guest Anwar Khurshid. See dates below:
|18 Jun 2016||MIDDLEWICH, (UK)
Middlewich FAB Festival
|19 Jun 2016||PERTH, SCOTLAND (UK)
|21 Jun 2016
|BELFAST, IRELAND (UK)
|22 Jun 2016||DUBLIN, IRELAND (IE)
RTÉ Radio / “Arena” show
|23 Jun 2016||NARBERTH, (UK)
|24 Jun 2016||CORNWALL, (UK)
The Acorn Penzance
|25 Jun 2016||DEVON, (UK)
World Unlimted @ Kingskerswell Parish Church
|26 Jun 2016
Poole Folk On The Quay Festival
|26 Jun 2016
The Prince Albert
|27 Jun 2016||BIRMINGHAM, (UK)
World Unlimited @ Kitchen Garden Cafe
|01 Jul 2016||LONDON, (UK)
Canada Day @ Canada House, Trafalgar Square
|02 Jul 2016||SUFFOLK, (UK)
Maverick Festival, Easton Farm Park
|03 Jul 2016||NORFOLK, (UK)
WoW Music Festival
For full tour dates including Canada and US visit: sultansofstring.com/calendar