Feature

How COVID helped birth Sultans of String’s award-winning documentary film

On the surface, the Sultans of String documentary The Refuge Project-Visual Album is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of their 2020 album Refuge, which was released just at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown. At its core though, the documentary is about the power of collaboration. It’s about the resilience of artists who sometimes had to leave their homelands in order to create their art in a new land with a new perspective. In many ways The Refuge Project-Visual Album would not have been made if not for the pandemic.

“We were starting to tour Refuge, the album, in March of 2020, so you know how that went!,” said fiddler Chris McKhool. “It was a process of trying to figure out what are we going to do if we can’t actually go out and perform live.”

The answer was the “Zoom Room,” a COVID-safe TV studio with a high-tech exhaust system. This resulted in a weekly online series showcasing the contributions made by the various guest musicians heard on Refuge.

“We started bringing in guests from the album,” said Chris. “Some of them became performers on the next album, Sanctuary, that we created during the pandemic.”

In making these weekly MTV-style videos, a more powerful vision emerged.

“We wanted to tell the story behind the story,” Chris explained. “To hear the artist’s own voice on why that music was meaningful for them and tell us about their journey to Canada from all around the globe. All these incredible performers we were able to meet and record with, and have their stories told to a wider audience.”

Some of those guests were Leen Hamo, a refugee from Syria, Ahmed Moneka, a refugee from Iraq, and Amchok Gompo, a refugee from Tibet. The guest list also included Duke Redbird, a poet/broadcaster and Indigenous elder; Bela Fleck, an American virtuoso banjo player who’s expanded the instrument from its bluegrass home into the worlds of jazz, classical, rock and more; and Robi Botos, a Hungarian-Canadian jazz pianist who was Oscar Peterson’s last protegé.

Collaborating with artists from around the world was an inspiring experience for the members of Sultans of String, but communicating with some of them had its challenges.

“Music is the international language but often we were not able to communicate through language with our collaborators,” said Chris. “With the Turkish string group, Gündem Yayli Grubu, I would hum or whistle something or play something on my violin. The leader of the group would have a bunch of shortcuts, then they would play it and almost the first time, it would sound perfectly in sync! It was uncanny.”

In the documentary, Drew Birston of Sultans of String talks about how the basic tracks to his tune “Weather Update” were elevated way beyond his expectations once various guests added their parts.

“I think one of the messages from The Refuge Project and the Sanctuary album is that together we’re stronger.” said Chris. “If you’ve got a whole bunch of voices, ideas and thoughts in a room, you’re going to be a lot better off than just sitting there on your own thinking stuff up. This is a model we want our politicians and leaders to also embrace. Let’s bring in many different ideas and voices. Everyone has gifts to share and together we create something which is impossible on our own.”

An added benefit of having video of what these artists contributed to the Refuge and Sanctuary albums, Sultans of String are taking them on the road to augment the live concert experience for their audiences.

We just love showing off these incredible musicians that we had the honour to perform with, We just did a month-long tour in the U.S. as a trio but in shows we would bring some of the guests on the big screen with us,” Chris said. “It’s exhilarating for the audience. All of a sudden they’re in this crazy multi-media experience extravaganza, and it becomes a bigger, more fun show.”

Audience acceptance of this kind of concert might be in part due to the pandemic and how people were forced to connect with their favourite artists. Concerts on Facebook and Zoom made it more palatable to see a concert in a different context.

“After spending a couple of years online, people are open to pretty much anything goes, if it’s high quality and it comes from a true, authentic place,” Chris said. “People are very open now to all kinds of entertainment experiences that they wouldn’t have been earlier on.”

The reception to The Refuge Project-Visual Album has been very gratifying to Sultans of String. The documentary won Best Musical Film at the Cannes World Film Awards, triumphed at the Best Istanbul Film Festival and was a semi-finalist at the Vancouver Independent Film Festival. There was a screening of the film on Nov. 20 in Toronto with the next one scheduled for Dec. 8 in Hamilton.

For more on The Refuge Project-Visual Album and news of the next album, Walking Through The Fire, go to sultansofstring.com.

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