Sultans of String lead a Christmas Caravan

Band bring their extensive knowledge of world music into all their performances

Christmas Caravan: Sultans of String with the North Shore Celtic Ensemble, Centennial Theatre, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 7 p.m. Tickets available at tickets.centennialtheatre.com.

Bandleader and violinist Chris McKhool loves the musicianship.

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He’s not talking – at least not yet – about the adventurous musical trip of his own band, the charmingly named Sultans of String, but reflecting on the music he favoured as a kid, which happened to be a genre known for its crazy time signatures, far-out solos, eclectic live productions and songs that were so long they gave new meaning to the word “odyssey.”

Fans and detractors alike referred to this highly ostentatious form of popular music from the 1970s as progressive rock, or simply, prog.

“The music is just so interesting,” McKhool tells the North Shore News. “There’s also definitely a virtuosity to a lot of the musicians who are playing prog rock, like if you’ve ever seen Keith Emerson play Hammond organ …”

The Sultans of String definitely aren’t prog rock, but it only takes a brief listen through the band’s extensive catalogue of world music, which fuses the styles and sounds of numerous artistic cultures into an energetic and folky package, to see the influence that complex, non-traditional types of music have had on the band.

The Sultans, who are rounded out by guitarists Kevin Laliberté and Eddie Paton, bass player Drew Birston and percussionist Rosendo Chendy Leon, are performing a special Christmas concert at Centennial Theatre on Dec. 5 alongside a plethora of special guests, including the North Shore Celtic Ensemble.

But the band will largely be taking the traditional part out of Christmas traditions when it performs in North Vancouver next week, says McKhool, as the musicians will be doing cuts from their latest album, Christmas Caravan, which aims to celebrate the season with original compositions and classic carols and audience favourites that have been reworked through the lens of world music.

“I wanted to make an album that I could be proud of and that would maybe tell a different story than the Christmas music that we hear constantly in the malls – something that comes from the heart, something that’s honest and something that reflects the diversity of our country and utilizes all the incredible musicians that we have here and abroad,” says McKhool.

The Toronto-based band formed more than 10 years ago after a diverse group of musicians with different musical backgrounds found the synergy needed to make something truly exceptional.

McKhool was doing a regular Friday night jazz gig in a small club in north York when Laliberté, who would become his future bandmate, came in as a substitute guitar player for the night. McKhool was instantly drawn to the captivating rumba rhythms that Laliberté was putting out there while warming up before the show, he explains.

“When we first started we didn’t set off as Sultans of String, we started off doing jazz gigs and then, when I realized we had a sound that we were doing, we called ourselves Le Laliberté and McKhool, which sounded a bit more like a law firm than a world music band,” says McKhool, with a laugh.

At this point in the band’s trajectory, they were essentially performing an even split between jazz standards and songs that either Laliberté or McKhool had written in a rumba style, while improvising heavily and trying out new ideas for hours on end during gigs.

“All along the way we were adding different kinds of styles. I was also bringing some Gypsy jazz to the band with my experience playing in a Django Reinhardt/Stéphane Grappelli-type club band,” says McKhool. “Then we started playing with a Cuban percussionist, Rosendo Chendy Leon, who started bringing this whole world of percussion into the mix, particularly Latin American percussion and then later on some African percussion as well.”

At the time, McKhool was also exploring his own Arabic heritage and integrating rhythms common to music from that part of the world into the Sultans’ repertoire.

“Most people think that because my last name’s McKhool and I play violin or fiddle that I must be Irish or Scottish, but actually my grandparents grew up in Lebanon,” he says.

Six studio albums, numerous international appearances and several accolades later – the band has three Juno nominations and has charted on Billboard – McKhool recounts his joy at playing music for a living and being able to connect with people aboard.

“When you’re travelling abroad, even if you don’t speak the language of the place where you’re going, you always have that musical language to share with people.”

The genre-hopping nature of the Sultans, who fuse together Celtic, flamenco, Gypsy-jazz, Arabic, Cuban, and South Asian rhythms, has led the band members in the direction of global causes and social justice issues, notes McKhool.

The band has partnered with the United Nations Agency for Refugees in Canada for its current run of shows, an organization that provides shelter, food, water and medical care assistance for refugees around the world. If they want, audiences will be given the opportunity to donate to the organization at a Sultans of String concert, says McKhool.

While the band belts out world music-inspired versions of holiday classics, such as on a number called “Turkish Greensleeves” and a version of “Little Drummer Boy” based around an African djembe rhythm, McKhool makes the connection between the holiday season, the power of music and giving back.

“The spirit of Christmas is to help others and to give to others and try and make the world a better place. We thought it was a real natural fit to try and remind people what the true spirt of Christmas is about.”

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