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Sultans of String’s new album is another celebration of music by immigrants and Indigenous people

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About 20 years ago, violinist Chris McKhool met guitarist Kevin Laliberté by accident at a jazz gig when Kevin substituted for the original guitarist.

“When I heard him play that rumba rhythm on the guitar so well, I fell in love instantly with his music and playing style and said, ‘Okay we have to make music together. This is so much fun,’” Chris said.

This introduction was just the beginning for world music band Sultans of String. They started playing regular jazz gigs in North York, ON filling three hours. Most of the sessions were improvisations that they recorded and that now take the form of some of their favourite songs to play today.

“In the beginning, we would call ourselves Liberté and McKhool, but it sounded a bit more like a law firm than a world music band, so we came up with the name Sultans of String,” Chris said.

The rest of their bandmates include guitarist Eddie Paton, bass player Drew Birston, and percussionist Chendy Leon.

Sultans of String’s most recent albums, Refuge and Sanctuary, communicate powerful stories from artists who are recent immigrants and refugees to Canada, as well as important Indigenous voices.

‘we really wanted to hear from these artists in their own voices’

Sanctuary, which Chris says is a companion to Refuge, came out Nov. 5 and is their eighth album.

“I think we realized early on that we really wanted to hear from these artists in their own voices, and the more we could incorporate them or bring them into the process of creation and arrangement, the richer the project would become,” Chris said.

Sanctuary was recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, in a safe space the band created called a “Zoom room,” Chris said, where they made all their music and videos with a six-camera shoot. To ensure artists’ safety, Chris said they included special ventilation, a vocal booth, and a separate room for the engineer.

“It’s the fastest we’ve ever completed an album. Within about eight days, we had almost everything done,” Chris said.

The main reason the band was compelled to create Sanctuary was due to the high volume of amazing artists they had heard of when recording Refuge, he said. For Refuge, they were able to work with artists like Amchok Gompo, a refugee from Tibet, and Chris said it was an amazing opportunity to have him play his incredible-sounding flute on the recording.

He said he also really wanted to work with Fethi Nadjem again, who is a wonderful performer playing the Algerian mandole on Refuge. The band brought Fethi back to sing French vocals on Sanctuary.

Showcasing talent from around the world

Sanctuary also showcases Juan Carlos Medrano, playing a Colombian flute called the gaita.

“He is such a strong strong performer, and we have wanted to work with him for years,” Chris said.

Chris shared how special it was to work with artist Leen Hamo, a Syrian refugee who came to Canada about four years ago.

“We just love her voice, and she is such an interesting person, and her music is very compelling, and we wanted to have her share her experience through her song ’Tell the Night,’” Chris said.

“Tell the Night” retells Leen’s experience of what it is like to come to Canada as a refugee and feel like a stranger in a strange land, Chris said.

“It’s telling somebody who is experiencing difficulty and fear to just tell the night your feelings, and it will embrace you, and you’ll get through this,” he said.

Musician Saskia Tomkins plays the nyckelharpa and vocalist Tamar Ilana sings in Spanish on the album.

“There is so much wonderfulness to share,” Chris said.

“Mi Santuario” featuring Juan Carlos Medrano was one of the most meaningful collaborations to Chris, he said. Juan Carlos wrote the lyrics, and Sultans of String worked with him on the music.

Holiday concert was deferred until this Christmas

“The lyrics are very powerful,” Chris said. “It kind of speaks both about feeling afraid, feeling alone, crossing a border, coming to a new country, but at the same time there’s this feeling of finding sanctuary.”

These feelings, Chris explained, are what the album is built around and what inspired its title.

There are a total of 22 amazing guest artists showcased on Sanctuary. All songs were recorded in the Zoom room, resulting in individual clips of artists edited together to make lively video performances that made the best out of pandemic protocols.

As of now, there are no plans for a third companion album, though Chris said it would be easy to create one with the abundance of talent the band has met.

As the Omicron variant became of increased concern across Canada, Sultans of String deferred its Ottawa Christmas show with Harmony Concerts for the third time; it is now projected to take place Dec. 19, 2022.

“It’s been amazing to perform live and connect with audiences again after so long, but with the new variant it just didn’t seem safe for our audiences or for our families,” Chris said.

With Ontario imposing new restrictions again, Chris said it feels a bit like reliving March 2020 over and over. Sultans of String’s concentration over the next couple months will be live streaming from their Zoom room and keeping a connection to their audience by creating community online Chris said.

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