How Duke Redbird inspired Sultans of Strings’ Walk Through the Fire project
It seems to me that Sultans of String could be called “The Kings of Collaboration.” Their 2018 album, Christmas Caravan, featured guest artists as diverse as Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, sitar virtuoso Anwar Khurshid, Richard Bona of Cameroon and jazz vocalist Nikki Yanofsky. 2020’s Refuge featured over 30 musicians from around the world on an album highlighting the plight of refugees and the humanitarian response to them. The second installment of their Refuge Project was 2021’s Sanctuary. This album dealt with the challenges faced by displaced peoples from around the globe. It was while recording the Refuge Project albums that Sultans of String began filming the process of creating the music. The footage was then put together in the award-winning film, The Refuge Project: Visual Album.
Now comes their latest collaboration, Walking Through The Fire, a collection of 14 songs created with Indigenous artists from across Canada. The catalyst for the album was Dr. Duke Redbird, a contributor to The Refuge Project albums as Chris McKhool of the Sultans of String explained.
“Duke said to me, ‘When are you going to do for Indigenous awareness what you’ve been doing for refugees and new immigrants?’”
Chris and the rest of the Sultans, Kevin Laliberté and Drew Birston, took it as a call to action.
“I’ve been working with Indigenous artists for many years in different ways,” he said.
One of those artists is Marc Meriläinen/Nadjiwan, whose song “A Beautiful Darkness” kicks off Walking Through The Fire.
“Chris reached out to me before the pandemic,” he explained. “I’m always looking to collaborate with other musicians because it allows me to grow as an artist, and I get to learn what they’re doing.”
The new album is a mix of songs written by artists like Crystal Shawanda, Shannon Thunderbird and Métis Fiddler Quartet, along with co-writes from Dr. Duke Redbird, Digging Roots, Leela Gilday & Leanne Taneton and Don Ross. Filling out the arrangements once again was the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The finished recording of “A Beautiful Darkness” was far beyond what Marc had envisioned for his song.
“I’m kind of a lazy songwriter,” he admitted. “I’ll write a couple of verses and a chorus and think I’m done. I was really excited to see what they came back with. It gives the song a new energy I never knew was there.”
The task of orchestrating the songs challenged Chris and the other Sultans when it came to “Nîmihito (Dance)” by the drum and singing group Northern Cree.
“Steve Wood of Northern Cree was really excited about the project because it’s really hard to get powwow music on the radio! We spent days listening to the original song, trying to understand its structure.”
The issue for the Sultans of String was unlocking the key to how Indigenous music is played and then matching it to a music form of European origin.
“Eventually we found a way to put chords to it, create harmony to it and finally this more flowy movement section. By the end of it, we had something which was definitely rooted in their song but it created a new work which brought these two worlds together.”
The creation of Walking Through The Fire is more than just a collaboration with Indigenous musicians. The bed tracks were recorded at Jukasa Studios, an Indigenous-owned studio located on Indigenous land south of Brantford, ON. The album design was created in consultation with Indigenous art director Mark Rutledge of Whitehorse, YT, along with filmmakers and videographers Eliza Knockwood and Marc Meriläinen.
“It’s definitely important to have these other people, who aren’t just musicians, involved in the project,” said Marc. “I don’t think the majority of Canadians really know who we are and the challenges we have. So it’s great to have the input from these other Indigenous collaborators.”
Chris added, “We had a lot of conversations, with Marc, Duke Redbird, Shannon Thunderbird and Colin Delbaere-Sawchuck from Métis Fiddler Quartet, who’s a lawyer, to get the right feel and look for it.”
To launch Walking Through The Fire, the Sultans of String and many artists from the album are partnering with symphonies from Brantford, Stratford and Niagara for seven shows from Sept. 28 until Oct. 4. After that, a stripped down version of the show will tour throughout northern Ontario. A special feature of all the shows will be a multimedia element so the Indigenous artists who couldn’t tour in person will be performing with the Sultans of String in real time.
“That way we can actually tour northern Ontario in two minivans with a screen and projector!” said Chris.
Going forward, Chris is making the orchestra charts available royalty-free to all the artists involved as a way to expand the capacity within the orchestra world to bring in more Indigenous voices and allow more conversations to happen in what Chris calls the stuffy European/classical/art music world. It’s an offer Marc has already taken advantage of.
“My band Nadjiwan tried the song once already in Burlington and we’re looking at incorporating it more into our shows going forward,” he said.
Looking into the future for albums like Walking Through The Fire, Marc Meriläinen sees the possibilities of what these collaborations can create.
“These projects cross a lot of bridges with audiences as well,” he said. “I have a different audience than the Sultans. They have a different audience than me. If we can bring new people into our own perspectives then we’re really building upon that and exposing people to new, exciting music and points of view.”
“This has been a tremendous growth experience for me,” said Chris. “I’m so excited and thrilled to have a whole year of touring ahead with these incredible artists. I can’t wait until that first concert on Sept. 28 when we’re on stage, actually playing the music together live. It’s going to be amazing!”
For more on Walking Through The Fire, go to http://www.sultansofstring.com.