Since serendipitously joining forces in 2004, violinist Chris McKhool and flamenco guitarist Kevin Laliberte—the founders of the Canadian based world fusion group Sultans of String-- have created a nonstop whirlwind of exotic musical energy, stirring up dizzying world music jams driven by polyrhythms and revved up riffs. Driven by McKhool’s explosive violin dances and Laliberte’s kinetic yet graceful guitar—along with electronic wizardry which contributes to a richly textured sonic landscape—the 2010 JUNO Award (Canadian Grammys) nominee have truly become Canada’s ambassadors of musical diversity. Their sound incorporates everything from Spanish Flamenco and Arabic folk to Cuban rhythms and French Gypsy Jazz.
Over the past five years, since expanding their initial duo to a full ensemble, they have released three independent recordings. Luna and Yalla Yalla! both hit #1 on the world/international charts in Canada, and their 2011 album Move received four 2012 Canadian Folk Music (CFMA) Awards, winning World Music Group of the Year. Sultans of String also took first place in the International Songwriting Competition and won a Festivals & Events Ontario-Entertainer of the Year Award. The group, most famous in Canada but recently starting to perform in major venues in the U.S. (including Scullers in Boston and Birdland in NYC), is currently working on an ambitious symphony orchestra project (tentatively titled Symphony!) and continues to perform concerts with symphony orchestras in Canada. Their first U.S. symphony show is scheduled for June 2013 in Bangor, Maine.
Jazz Monthly recently had the opportunity to interview Sultans of String co-founder Chris McKhool.
JazzMonthly: Let’s talk about the beginnings of Sultans of String. What were you and Kevin doing in your careers before you joined forces, and how and when did you first meet and begin playing together?
CM: Funny enough, though Kevin is an electrical engineer from schooling and worked in computer programming, he always loved playing music – and later in his life he started dedicating ten hours a day to practicing guitar. His wife at the time convinced him to make a go of it, and he got out there and became the touring backing guitarist with (Canadian based rumba flamenco star) Jesse Cook. His rhythm chops are astounding. I had been doing all sorts of funny musical things, performing for young audiences across North America, doing children’s concerts, Earth, Sea and Air events that celebrate the environment and creating a unique show called Fiddle Fire, which is like Sultans of Strings for kids. Long before I had a child of my own I loved connecting with kids. Sometimes when Sultans play a festival, we will do the main stage at night after performing on the kid’s stage during the day.
In the mid-2000s, I started playing with a sax player who turned me on to the art of improvisation, and we did a weekly jazz series at a club in Toronto, the Fox & Fiddle. One week, Kevin subbed for another player and I heard him warming up and was immediately blown away. I started hiring him for other gig, and we joined forces more officially playing the small lounge Umno Mundo, a glitzy place with high priced liqueurs. We had three hours to fill each gig, with no music stand, and so we starting making things up, creating spontaneous compositions. I started recording some of these on a handheld recorder. Some of the songs that ended up on Luna and later albums began right there. Musically, the two of us just saw many wonderful possibilities. Back then, we never had official titles, so we would name these pieces “A Minor Fast Thingie” and “Slow Sexy Thingie”!
JM: Was it immediately clear that you were going to make music together or did it take a while to figure out what kind of musical direction the partnership would take?
CM: We both actually love trying out crazy ideas and seeing what sticks, and when we saw the power of this style of music on the listening public, we knew we had to do more of it. Kevin was eager to stay off the road and develop a more “in town” lifestyle as well. We called ourselves Laliberte and McKhool at first, but knew we needed a better name after we recorded our first three song demo in my living room. We wanted a name that would ensure that people knew what it was. Sultans of String was the best of the 200 we came up with. It’s a little exotic but still accessible. Our initial goals were much more limited than today. We were happy to pick up gigs here and there, happy to make $75 a man to play all night in a theatre lobby or any club. Neither of us was married or had kids at the time, so we were footloose and fancy free. Then in 2007, we honed in and decided to take it to the next level, so we became pickier about our repertoire, putting together an actual set list of songs that would engage audiences rather than just entertain ourselves. We pieced together songs that would allow us to tell true and historical stories to the audience, including tunes like “Luna The Whale” and “Sable Island.” We didn’t sing but we found another way to become musical storytellers.
JM: I assume String refers to your violin and his flamenco guitar. What do you think makes the chemistry work, at the beginning and now?
CM: Back when we were playing Umno Mundo, Kevin told me he was listening to a CD that was blowing his mind, which was Willie and Lobo live. They were a violin and flamenco guitar duo whose music was full of timing irregularities, but we loved the spirit of it and the way the two fed off each other. We realized that if those guys could do it, we could as well, though we were eager to draw from an even wider range of world influences. Kevin and I have a lot of musical knowledge between us and a unique shared cultural history that seeps into what we do together. We’re brothers in the music we were brought up on, loving all the Canadian singer-songwriters, progressive rock and UK rock. Kevin is into jazz and I started getting into Indian and Arabic music, and later got a gig with the band Club Django, which introduced me to the super fast 30s and 40s jazz swing. Our chemistry comes from a deep friendship and our willingness to fuse so many of these common and diverse influences together.
JM: How did you go about adding new members – and is there a permanent band or is it you guys and a rotating collective? How has the sound evolved?
CM: We started working with bassist Drew Birston on the first album. He’s worked with many top Canadian singer songwriters, from Melanie Doane and Chantal Kreviazuk, and has done many pop shows and is well versed in the jazz world. Another guy we loved working with was Cuban percussionist Chendy Leon, who has a universe of percussion instruments in his minivan! We also added Eddie Paton on backing flamenco guitar. There was a small core on the first album and everyone else was a special guest. Those are the core guys but live, who plays depends on what kind of gig it is. Sultans will do duo, trio, quartet or quintet gigs. If Eddie can join, that frees Kevin up to explore different territories on his flamenco guitar.