One of Canada’s richest national assets is the cultural diversity of its citizens, and in 1971 it was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy. It’s hardly surprising that music would provide one of the finest illustrations of that enlightened policy, in the form of Toronto based ensemble, Sultans Of String, currently on an extensive UK (dates below) and North American tour following the launch of their fifth album Subcontinental Drift.
Music has the ability to bring together people and cultures in a way that emulates what we love to see in the world, creating a collaboration that breaks down the barriers that divide us, helping us to see our common humanity and providing a model for peace. Sultans of String
Since their 2007 début, Luna, the band founded on the synergy achieved between Chris McKhool‘s blend of classical and folk violin, and guitarist Kevin Laliberté‘s passion for jazz, flamenco and rumba, have produced original, exciting and engaging music. Along with Drew Birston‘s jazz-empowered bass they embarked on a dazzling array of explorations centred around Spanish Flamenco, Arabic folk, Cuban rhythms, and French Gypsy-jazz. With the addition of Eddie Paton‘s steel guitar and Cuban percussionist Rosendo “Chendy” León their musical vision has expanded over four albums to accommodate a wealth of guest musicians and even a full orchestra, in their majestic 2014 release, Symphony!
The list of collaborators continues to expand on Subcontinental Drift, most notably with the inclusion of Sitar Master Anwar Khurshid, whose extensive credits include music for the films Life of Pi, Kama Sutra, and The Love Guru. And it’s Anwar’s unmistakeable influence that provides the hot, sultry opening for the album, Enter The Gate. Written by Anwar with Montreal blues guitarist Paul DesLauriers; the introduction from sitar, slide guitar and McKhool’s six-string violin quickly moves on to a rich, rewarding and lively melody with a delightful call & return between violin and sitar. A multitude of influences permeate the exciting sound as Nashville meets Indian classical, with a wee dash of rumba to spice it all up even more.
Anwar came to Canada from Pakistan, an adventure that’s charted in Journey To Freedom. Celebrating the international language of music, the sitar and violin trad-inspired opening becomes more adventurous as McKhool’s fiddle takes flight among some gorgeous fretless bass lines from Drew Birston. There’s history to those encounters that comes alive in Rakes Of Mallow / Rouge River Valley. It’s a delightful tune set that showcases not only the startling and energizing combination of sitar, guitar and violin alongside the transcendental tabla of Ravi Nampally, but in the sheer delight of hearing an Irish melody sung in Hindi. Rouge River Valley evolved from the tune brought to India via England, and is given an extra lift in the trio’s treatment
Those Western flavours hinted at in the album’s opening track find their strongest voice in the Laliberté/McKhool composition, A Place To Call Home. With a soft acoustic guitar opening that proves The Sultans don’t have to rely on the full, exciting, expanded sound to impress, there’s something of James Taylor about this song.
I’m scared to feel, I’m a corporate meal, I’m a stranger in a bar
I’m a man who drives a taxi cab, who’s eyes don’t see too far
I don’t think I can take another ride
Unless you’re going to the other side
Alongside Paton’s soothing steel guitar, it’s a lyrical search for a key to freedom among environmental issues, anti-consumerism and even religion; but discovers that, ultimately, the answer lies within.
Which brings us to the album’s only cover version, Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind.
It’s a perfect illustration of what Sultans of String achieve with their music. Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind is tinged with sadness because ‘the answer’ is something unattainable, but in their hands the song is transformed into something joyful. Complete with a Caribbean beat behind the Bollywood inspired accompaniment, and classical Indian sailing over both. The vocal builds and builds throughout. More harmony, more joy. Anwar’s Qawwlli chanting inspires hope and the listener exalts in the experience, the exaltation grows with a vocal choir, blossoms and passes the joy onto everyone around. It would be too easy to dismiss this song as ‘another Dylan cover’, it’s far more than that. This interpretation teaches us to find hope – purely through the vocal and instrumental arrangements, and without changing a single syllable of text. The power of music.
The Eastern influences in the album are its strongest flavour, but that doesn’t prove restrictive in the least and, as illustrated in the Sindhi celebration of freedom Ho Jamalo, leaves ample space for adventure. As Anwar’s Carnatic chant expands and is echoed by layers of glorious strings to provide an almost orchestral backing, there’s surprise and delight as Waleed Abdulhamid‘s plaintive, soft Sudanese vocal takes the song in a new direction and lifts us gently toward a passionate celebration of internationalism. The piece moves on to an exciting jam on sitar, guitar and violin where Rosendo’s percussion improvisations sway between Afro-Cuban and 70’s rock before, refreshed by the extensive instrumental bridge, Anwar’s vocal returns stronger than ever for a final chorus.
The excitement continues in Snake Charmer. After a gentle raga-inspired opening that exudes the heat of the subcontinent, the track moves toward another lively call and return, this time between sitar and acoustic guitar; with violin providing some tangential colour initially, until it joins the conversation. An added injection of pace just past the half-way point and the piece really takes off (as if it hadn’t already) towards a frenzied conclusion in an explosion of strings and tabla.
On a more mellow note, Parchan Shaal Panhwar features Shweta Subram‘s sweet, alluring vocal in a duet with acoustic guitar. This is far more than a beautiful song, though. An exquisite bridge that echoes the wide production technique of Daniel Lanois sees layers of guitar and Anwar’s exultant vocal chant join pulsing percussion to an uplifting crescendo. The title track, Subcontinental Drift, is a delicate acoustic guitar/sitar duet that showcases that atmospheric blend of Flamenco and Indian classical; with each side of the equation bolstered by tabla and soft Cuban beats.
Finally, the beautifully mellow A Heart Does What It Does brings the album to a soothing, reflective, conclusion where Anwar’s Urdu vocal exudes such passion it simply has to indicate a love song.
It’s no surprise to learn that Sultans of String have earned a stream of nominations and awards during their ten-year existence. Among them, two nominations and two further wins in the ISC International Songwriting Competition, two JUNO award nominations, and in 2013 a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for Chris McKhool for his work in creating community through music.
Subcontinental Drift is an enthralling, adventurous celebration of the power music has to transcend geographical and cultural boundaries, and Sultans of String wield that power with grace, eloquence and spirit. The intricate arrangements instil deep joy and fascination in equal measure. The beguiling vocal performances soothe the mind and stir the soul.
The most endearing aspect of this album, though, is without doubt the way it flows, seamlessly, from one region of the planet to another, or combines those regional flavours in one glorious feast of sound and colour. Spanish guitar accompanies Indian classical with Latin grooves and rock guitar riffs. Soft Sindhi trad leads to light and passionate Sudanese vocal with a strict snare providing the beat. Every track on Subcontinental Drift provides examples of this effortless weave of styles. Taking the diversity at the heart of the Canadian constitution as inspiration, Sultans of String offer not only boundless creative potential, but epitomize the communication and understanding the multicultural society offers.
Subcontinental Drift is out now on McKool.
Sultans of String UK 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