12 days of Christmas: Sultans of String – Christmas Caravan
Are you like us? Do you dread walking into a department store or a mall in the pre-Christmas weeks because of the ever-present and wholly annoying Muzak versions of Christmas carols? But do you love carefully selected, well-presented and beautifully arranged Christmas music? Then the Sultans of String’s Christmas Caravan is definitely something you want in your music library.
Chris McKhool (violins), Kevin Laliberte (guitars), Drew Birston (bass), Chendy Leon (percussion), Eddie Paton (guitars), and their musical collaborators have done something completely unique with the music on this album. They’ve taken many of the beautiful standards of Christmas music and transported them to places around the world with fantastically creative arrangements and the help of a large group of really fabulous musicians and vocalists. Their recent Grammy nomination tells us that this work of art is not going unnoticed.
“Greensleeves” goes to Turkey, with lush Arabic rhythms and the Turkish string ensemble Gündem Yayli Grubu. We are taken to the mountain region of Northern India with “Himalayan Sleigh Ride,” an original composition from Chris, Kevin and sitarist Anwar Khurshid. Chris’ composition “Sing for Kwanzaa” takes us to Africa, with help from instrumentalist/vocalist Richard Bona and vocalist Waleed Abdulhamid.
We go to Scotland and Ireland on the medley of “Niel Gow’s Lament/Rakes of Mallow/Rouge River Valley.” Paddy Moloney of The Chieftans contributes his tin whistle and evokes the green hills of Eire.
“Silent Night” goes to another planet altogether. Its simply gorgeous arrangement has France’s David Charrier playing the otherworldly hang drum.
“Feliz Navidad” gets a new life with Alex Cuba on vocals and a great new arrangement with added lyrics: “Come on People Sing” from Chris McKhool.
Nikki Yanofsky channels the fifties on “The Christmas Song,” and on “A Django Christmas,” the Sultans evoke the 1940’s jazz era of Django Reinhardt with this mashup of familiar carols.
We get taken to mainland Europe as well. The band plays with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on “The Little Swallow,” a tune that originates from Ukraine. Here, it is mashed up with the Sultans’ original tune “Al Vuelo,” arranged in a Spanish style. That sounds like a lot of diversity, but trust us, it works, and works beautifully.
Quebec is represented as well – we have a lovely arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with Rebecca Campbell on vocals, and then we have Benoit Bourque on vocals, feet and bones on “Les anges dans nos campagnes.”
One of our personal faves of the season, the first carol composed in Canada, “Jesous Ahatonhia (Huron Carol)” is also here. Chris and company have re-created this beautiful song through discovering a direct transliteration of the original Huron-Wendat lyrics, showing their original intent, and then adding a new verse. Ojibwe artist Crystal Shawanda on vocals does an absolutely beautiful job.
Our hearts were lightened to hear John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over),” on this album. It’s a beautiful song for the season, often ignored, but here presented with immaculate taste and artistry. Luba Mason and Ruben Blades do a very sensitive vocal duet in both Spanish and English.
Throughout, we have Chris McKhool’s virtuoso playing of violins. Chris will be the first to tell you that he’s not that good but that he just surrounds himself with the best musicians he can find in the business. But when you listen to albums like this, you really see that Chris’ facility with the fiddle is nothing short of stellar. When he surrounds himself with superb musicians like Kevin Laliberte, Drew Birston, Chendy Leon, Eddie Paton, and the myriad of guest creators on this CD and unleashes his considerable talents for composition and arrangement, he truly reaches his potential.
The Sultans of String tradition of world rhythms is extended here to give us a completely new experience of Christmas music. What strikes us in listening to this album, is that this is a work of art to be considered in its entirety. There are extensive liner notes with the CD that complete our experience as listeners and let us in on some of the secrets of the sounds that the band has achieved here.
This album is a magnificent accomplishment for the Sultans of String; the members are among the hardest working musicians on the concert circuit today. Do yourself a favour and get your hands on Christmas Caravan. It will turn your Christmas dinner into a global feast.
Tour dates, CD’s and other info: