Sultans of String Find Sanctuary In New Album
There’s world music. And then there’s the Sultans of String, the award-winning Canadian collaborative that brings people from diverse nations together in a way the United Nations could only dream.
Take the band’s recently released eighth album SANCTUARY for example. SANCTUARY is an ambitious, inclusive and passionately political album that puts the band face-to-fact with a VIP roster of global musical ‘ambassadors’, some of whom are recent immigrants and refugees to Canada, as well as important Indigenous voices. The album’s eleven tracks include stellar performances by Tara and Ahmed Moneka from Iraq, Amchok Gompo from Tibet, Donné Roberts from Madagascar with partner Yukiko Tsutsui from Japan, Algeria’s Fethi Nadjem, Juan Carlos Medrano, Syrian refugee Leen Hamo, Iran’s Padideh Ahrarnejad, and Nyckelharpa player Saskia Tomkins. The album also includes three new versions of songs from the band’s last album, REFUGE, and a cover of the Sonny Bono-penned Cher classic “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down,” reinterpreted to reflect how the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired demand for equality around the world.
SANCTUARY comes on the heels of the band’s 2020 release, REFUGE which earned many awards including Producer of the Year at the 2021 Canadian Folk Music Awards for bandleader and violinist Chris McKhool. While the pandemic derailed much of the promotional plan for that album, the Sultans of String are now back performing live and promoting both albums, a bonus for fans who haven’t had opportunity to hear that album performed live. The Sultans of String, along with special guests appearing both live and virtually, are part of a multi-media extravaganza scheduled for FirstOntario PAC November 13th as part of the Bravo Niagara music series. Band leader Chris took time to chat with GoBeWeekly about the new album, performing live, and the joys of Jon Luc Ponty.
GoBe: I was actually thinking of you a few weeks ago because it was Jean Luc Ponty’s birthday. As a prog rock fan, I got into his mastery of electric violin and he always makes me think of you.
Chris: I will tell you why. When i was a kid playing classical violin and I was trying to figure out what I could do with that crazy instrument, I came across a Jean Luc Ponty album called Imaginary Voyage and he had plugged his violin into a delay pedal. I heard that and there was no turning back. I went to Steve’s Music Store in Ottawa where I grew up and I grabbed a delay and a reverb and never looked back. It was that album that kind of opened up my eyes that there was lots you can do with this instrument.
GoBe: How happy are you to be back on stage performing live?
Chris: We’ve done 3 shows so far. It’s been pretty amazing to be able to perform again in public for real audiences. The first show was rather quite emotional. Everyone in the room including us were feeling almost in tears because it was just so great to be able to share our music.
GoBe: Sultans like many artists performed virtually during the pandemic but there’s no comparison is there?
Chris: It’s amazing. We did a hard left turn into the live streaming and we’re still doing that. The combination of live streaming and live shows coming up is keeping us pretty busy. But there’s nothing like live music to really shake you in your soul, especially when compared to sitting on a patio listening to recorded music. There’s something about live music that is real and visceral and emotive. It’s not compressed and mastered. It’s the real thing.
GoBe: Speaking of recorded music, we’re speaking today because you’ve got a new album out called Sanctuary, and a show coming up at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre November 13th as part of the Bravo Niagara series.
Chris: We’re super excited about the new album and the show. It’s kind of a combination album release of Sanctuary as well as Refuge, which we released on March 20th, 2020 just as the whole world was gong into the crazy time. This is one of our most adventurous and political and humanitarian albums that we’ve created to date with these incredible guests, many of whom has come to Canada as refugees and new immigrants.
GoBe: That kind of collaboration must be inspiring for band members.
Chris: The whole process of making the album was amazing because as we get to create with these other artists we learn a lot from them. That’s the whole beauty of being a musician. It’s not something that’s done in isolation. You do it with other people. That’s where the real magic comes in.
GoBe: How is that spirit of collaboration going to translate when you’re on stage?
Chris: This is going to be a show like no other because we have many of these guests joining us live in person on stage, but we’re also going to be joined by other international guests through the miracle of the Internet. We’ll have a giant 80-foot screen that will feature guest performers. We’re going to be pushing the technology that’s for sure, doing things on stage we’ve never done before. It’s really going to be a mind blowing show. For me as a bandleader, it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
GoBe: I watched a documentary on Amazon recently called Sidemen, which was all about musicians who serve as ‘hired guns,” recording with multiple artists and contributing to various projects and how they can really inspire the creative process. Is that what transpired in the recording of Sanctuary?
Chris: It was kind of like that on steroids. The job of a side person can be to add some influence but also to blend with whatever is going on at the time. The job of an equal partnership collaborator like these artists is to bring what they do best and for us to bring what we do best, and then to see what the meeting point is between those two groups of artists, to create something new that’s never been done before, to create a sound, to combine harmonies and melodies and rhythm. It’s exciting to hear when you all join forces.
GoBe: This is a very political album, given the subject matter, the messaging, and the people involved. Is there ever any worry about weaving politics into the music, or has that always been a thread in the rich tapestry of music created by Sultans of Strings?
Chris I think for me, playing music is my favourite thing to do in the world ever. But in some ways, it’s not enough for me to just play my violin and some nice melodies. For me it’s always about pushing the art, pushing the technology, and sharing ideas I care about. Life’s too short to not make a statement of some kind whatever it is. For me, I feel like there are many issues I care about and I don’t have time to be out on the street with a placard in front of city hall and making great records at the same time. I guess what I’m doing is to try to combine everything I care about into one project.
Gobe: In other words, to quote Mick Jagger, ‘what can a poor boy do, except for play in a rock and roll band”’
Chris: (Laughing) Exactly. We all feel fortunate to play music and travel the world and to make recordings and to work with these individuals. When you meet some of these artists and hear t heir stories you feel pretty compelled to share those stories. And that’s what we’re trying to do when you hear these stories, is to try to amplify these incredible voices. For people to be able to experience these artists first hand is really a privilege.
GoBe: There’s a great cover on the album of Cher’s classic “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” that’s very haunting. Tell me about that track.
Chris: We had a lot of fun with that. It is always kind of a game for us, to take songs that are so famous and everyone knows it and be able to reinterpret it in our own way. How far away from the original can you get without being unidentifiable. In addition to putting a flamenco vibe behind the song, we altered the lyrics a little bit. There’s a subtle adjustment to make it more contemporary. Society is in a different place now than it was before the Black Live Matter movement and the lyrics reflect that.
GoBe: I imagine when Refugee came out the whole pandemic threw a wrench in your promotional plans. Does the fact you’re in essence promoting both now present any challenges?
Chris: There are definite challenges to releasing anything during a global pandemic. What we have to our advantage is that I did learn a new skill. We created a Zoom room where we’ve been getting together once a week. We have a show called Back Stage. We feature one of the artists from one of those two albums and we get to interview them and play music with them and play videos that we create with those special guest collaborators. That’s something that pre-pandemic never in a million years would I have known how to do. The thought would not have even occurred to me. You speak about promotion. This is a really neat way that we get to promote these artists. It’s very new and very fun.
GoBe: For those people who may not have seen Sultans of Strings before, what can you tell us about the show you’re bringing to St. Catharines for the Bravo Niagara performance.
Chris: The show we’re going to do in St. Catharines is going to be a one-in-a-million show. It’s just going to be over the top. I’m super excited about it because we are going to be pushing the technology, combining these incredible guest artists that are going to be live on stage along with the other guest artists coming in on the huge 80-foot screen plus all the Sultans of Strings band members on stage. Its going to be extraordinary.
You can enjoy Sultans of Strings online by viewing BACKSTAGE with Sultans of String, a free livestream broadcast at www.facebook.com/sultansofstring that features in-depth connections with guest artists, fan interactive conversations, video premieres, and up close and personal interviews with the artists, discovering their stories behind the songs that include tales of both struggles and success, and of course live music.