"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview" Chris McKhool of "Sultans of String"
Canada’s 3x JUNO (Canada’s Grammy) nominees/3x CFMA winning ambassadors of musical diversity, Sultans of String, have expanded the traditional notion of Christmas music with their new, genre-hopping disc, “Christmas Caravan.”
Sultans of String’s acclaimed world music tapestry embraces orchestration and pop on this album, and is spurred on by a stellar cast of guest musicians, bringing even more color to their lively palette.
We would like to welcome Chris McKhool to JazzMonthly.com
JM: Before we talk about your wonderful holiday offering "Christmas Caravan," can you give us a brief overview of the origin of "Sultans of String," and tell us how you got your name?
CM: A driving force behind forming the band and what we do is to try and model the coming together of people and diverse traditions, and create a meaningful dialogue through the universal language of music. For decades, walls have been torn down around the world, and now we see some of them going back up. We have an opportunity to model the collaboration that we wish our leaders would show.
But to go back to the beginning, about 14 years ago, I was doing a regular Friday night jazz gig in a small club in North York, and Kevin came in as a substitute guitarist that night. He was warming up and getting ready to go on stage, and was playing this rumba rhythm. I fell in love with it immediately - rumba rhythms give music such drive! Kevin quickly became the permanent guitarist at these Friday gigs. We would spontaneously, before live audiences, compose music together. A result of that chance meeting would be the two of us going on to write many songs together – enough material to fill three entire albums. 10 years ago, bassist Drew Birston joined us for the ride, bringing his incredible jazz musicianship as well as the vision and experience of big stage performing and that's the time we named ourselves Sultans of String. It took us a while to come up with the name, and we had a lot of ideas flowing about but in the end we thought it would be fun and playful to do a play on words of the Dire Straits' song, and bringing in the notion of Sultans, who are kings where we derive some of our musical influences.
JM: "Sultans of String" has been together almost a decade and a half, and this is your first Christmas project. Was creating a Christmas album something that you perhaps always thought about doing... even years ago?
CM: The idea came about only 2 yrs ago. We had just finished a concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and gone out for drinks afterwards with their conductor Lucas Waldin and he said; "You know you should really think about doing a Christmas concert!" It was a new idea for us but by the end of eating our soup and before the entrée hit the table, we had the entire holiday show plotted out on a cocktail napkin. That was the fun part! Then it took a whole 2 years to complete.
We realized as we were getting into the project that it was a perfect vehicle for us to do new things with our music that we had always dreamed of doing, like making a vocal album with our wish list of special guests. This gave us an opportunity to reach out to some of our favourite singers on the planet like Richard Bona, Crystal Shawanda, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Rebecca Campbell, Nikki Yanofsky, Ruben Blades, Benoit Bourque, Alex Cuba – and to create and arrange music in a really different way. Our amazing U.S. manager Dave Wilkes was instrumental in us putting this album together because he reached out to many of these artists inviting them to come on board. He has worked with hundreds of artists over the years and signed a lot of them to various labels and record deals, and is on a first name basis with many of the management agencies and levels that carry the special guests. and he has that special charm and persistence that makes it impossible to say 'no' to him.
JM: There have been many "holiday" albums produced over the years. "Christmas Caravan" is definitely not the typical Christmas album, because this record truly has "multi-national" appeal. What did you set out to achieve during the early planning of this record?
CM: One of the things we love to do with Sultans of String is play rhythms and grooves that come to North America from all around the globe, everything from rumba flamenca from southern Spain, Gypsy-jazz from eastern Europe, Arabic rhythms (my background), Cuban rhythms (our percussionist Chendy's background), Panama, Africa, East Coast celtic music, —we thought it would be really fun to bring that energy and drive of all those rhythms to the Christmas songs that people love to sing, as well as some of the musical mash-ups that we create from scratch. So while it's a Christmas album, we've really tried to tie in diverse voices from many parts of the world. It's the kind of music that can only be made in collaboration with different cultures and languages, and that's what makes it I think a more compelling holiday project. The idea of the Christmas Caravan linking people together to make a beautiful sound together. And really that's what really is a big part of what it means to be Canadian. The more diverse a population is, its cultures, languages and traditions, the more chances you have of coming up with a great idea.
Working with these musical guests was a really great opportunity for us because it gave us an opportunity as musicians to deepen our understanding of world music traditions. For instance, arranging Sing for Kwanzaa with Richard Bona was a real treat, learning more about how he puts together African rhythms to structure a song.
JM: This album certainly brings people together for the holidays! What an ambitious undertaking it must have been in your pursuit to create "Christmas Caravan!" What are some of the rewards in knowing that you've truly produced a fantastic piece of musical global art?
CM: Wow, thank you for that. We really did want to contribute to the Christmas repertoire in a meaningful way and we wanted to do so in a way that honored the Christmas tradition while paying tribute to the world music traditions. It was a lot of fun to do and we also wanted to mark that journey with videos which allowed us to re-experience the songs. That was super fun. But mostly we were thinking about how to create a really enjoyable experience for our fans who are fans of Christmas music and world music that stands alone as one piece of art. One of my favorites tracks is Turkish Greensleeves because with that song we had the opportunity to collaborate with a collective of Turkish Roma string players and they brought the song to a whole other place, a whole other world which we couldn't have done on our end. Same with Silent Night and the hang drum playing of David Charrier, or Neil Gow's Lament and the pennywhistle playing of Paddy Moloney. The strength of the guests and being able to collaborate with them is what really makes this album shine.
JM: Let's talk about some of the tracks on this CD. You have included selections celebrating Kwanzaa and Hanukkah in addition to Christmas. Do you feel that in some ways you are also exposing your audiences to cultures about which they might not have previously known?
CM: We're always looking to have fun ourselves in exploring world music traditions and diving in for the first time or celebrating cultural traditions of the guests themselves, so music is one of those ways where we can find a deeper connection and collaboration to learn more about other people and their families' traditions. I guess we bring our audience on that journey with us.
JM: The music of Turkey is often known for using rather unorthodox time signatures-- that is, "unorthodox" by western standards. Your "Turkish Greensleeves" explores this on the album. Please tell us what went into the production of that particular track?
CM: I love that Turkish Greensleeves song because it utilizes a Saidi rhythm from the middle east. One of the things we like to do in our live show is invite the audience the clap out the rhythm. It's actually very close to a western rhythm that many folks will recognize in "We Will Rock You" haha, but it has a little bit of a skip in it, with its Arabic rhythm—so it sounds really familiar but then it has this new element that can be tricky to do. It's a lot of fun having our audiences trying to clap along with us there. And it's a good teachable moment that there are differences between cultures but there's a lot that's shared.
What's really interesting is that we actually did this song with the Turkish players in Istanbul over Facebook! We did the bed tracks here in Toronto and then sent them the MP3 through their Facebook account, then they recorded their parts and shipped it back through FB! This new era of modern technology allows for a lot more flexibility than the old days of the 2 inch tape deck. This August we're hoping to create some more music together, but actually travel to Istanbul to meet the Turkish players face to face this time!
JM: You have a number of notable guest contributors who join your core five on "Christmas Caravan." Can you tell us about some of these artists?
CM: We're really thrilled with the artistic level of these special guests. It's funny—when you're trying to reach artists of this stature, sometimes it takes a while to get through all the various layers of management, which is also one of the reasons why it took 2 years to make this record. And since didn't hear back right away from some, we just kept recording and we hit about 12 songs which is a normal length CD and then just towards the very end we had this flurry of musicians jump on board so at the last minute we recorded with Nikki Yanofsky, Richard Bona, Ruben Blades and it turned into an 18 track CD haha! Actually the manufacturer said that we hit the physical limit of what you can fit on a CD and if we recorded one more minute of music, they'd make us sign a waiver saying that they couldn't guarantee the CD would play on all systems!!
In addition to the Turkish players I mentioned, Richard Bona is a personal hero to the members of the band, as is Ruben Blades who's a star Panamanian singer. Other notable experiences was working with Crystal Shawanda who did a totally gorgeous vocal on Jesous Ahalonhia. That's a really interesting song. A lot of people know it as Huron Carol. I found a direct transliteration of the original Huron-Wendat lyrics, which were written in the 1600s by St Jean de Brebeuf. This is Canada's first Christmas carol, and while there are some complex issues around this song, it is of great historical significance. Now people can hear the intent of the original lyrics for the very first time.
Recording with Sweet Honey In The Rock was an amazing experience. They're an African-American, all woman Grammy winning acapella group who are very popular in the folk world. They brought a whole world of harmony to a song we co-wrote called Celebrate The Holydays and it really came alive in the studio with a lot of clapping and stomping. That was a real treat.
JM: There are so many delightful surprises that you give us! Even some of your traditional Christmas carols will suddenly take a twist and move us in a different, unexpected direction... making us smile. This playfulness has always been a marvelous quality of Sultans of String. Is this something that just happens naturally in the midst of a live performance or recording session?
CM: For us, we like to remind ourselves all the time that we are playing music for a living. It's not a risky job and no one's going to get hurt if we fool around. So we get to be like kids playing in a sandbox. We take every song and strip it down to its bare bones and then mess with it and try each song in ten different styles and see what style suits the song the best and not be afraid to really mess around with things. And when we end up taking that to the stage, there's the additional fun of playing against the other and hamming it up and creating little musical puns and joke with each other, trying to crack each other up. I think part of the fun for the audience is that we're having so much fun on stage. We've been at it for a while so we have to keep it fun for ourselves and experimental and interesting for ourselves and that's one of the ways that we do it.
JM: Your recording of "Jingle Bells" is about as jolly as you can get! It was so much fun to listen to, and of course it had that international "Sultan" flavor. Tell us about the Jingle Bells medley.
CM: We really wanted to record Jingle Bells because it's one of the two songs on the album that has French content. We sing an English verse then a French verse and a verse we wrote ourselves. That was one of the songs that we tried in 10 different ways haha, we tried it as a rumba, swing-jazz, we tried it as reggae tune, we really tried everything under the sun. Then it was hearing a version by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters that provided the inspirational launching point for this. It was actually a little bit of an accident that our song Auyiuttuq Sunrise that we usually play as a rumba, really worked well in this 1920s swing style. We're always looking for ways of making other songs our own and introduce our music to new audiences, so we thought this would be a fun mash-up and they do seem to fit together well. The same thing kind of happened with a traditional song called The Little Swallow and our own called Al Vuelo. We realized that The Little Swallow worked really well as a bulerias, a form of music from the streets of southern Spain, and that we could a mash-up and switch back and forth between the songs to create something new and exciting for us. That song by the way is the earlier instrumental version of a song that people will recognize as Carol of the Bells. Carol of the Bells which was adapted with lyrics. The Little Swallow is also known as the Ukranian New Year's carol Shchedryk, which speaks beautifully to the season.
JM: John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" is also featured on this album. The arrangement is superb. Were the arrangements more or less a collaborative thing on "Christmas Caravan?"
CM: Some songs were arranged by me and our guitarist Kevin Laliberte, and sometimes the songs were arranged by the whole band which we would then bring to the special guests where they would workshop them from there. Other songs were arranged from the ground up with the guest performers like Celebrate The Holydays with Sweet Honey in the Rock which we created in real time with the tape rolling. Sing for Kwanzaa with Richard Bona was another one of those songs which were arranged from ground zero which we simply would not have been able to create on our own. That's one of the thrills of working with a guest, being able to learn other world rhythms that speak to their heart.
JM: You rarely ever hear the introduction (what used to be called the "verse") on "The Christmas Song." I understand that Mel Torme added that little four-line intro, years after he wrote it. It was so charming to hear Nikki Yanofsky sing that introduction on your version! How did that come about?
CM: Nikki really wanted to perform that particular song for this project. When I discovered that verse, I was very excited since we're always trying to bring something new and fresh to our arrangements. And even though that's actually a very old verse, I never in my life had heard it before until I discovered it in an ancient archival film of Mel Torme singing the song. I asked Nikki if she would sing that with the new arrangement. And she did a gorgeous job. She totally killed it.
JM: There are 18 tracks on "Christmas Caravan." You certainly give your listeners their money's worth! Nobody captures that worldwide holiday sentiment like the Sultans of String. You truly give us a sense of how the holidays are celebrated -- and all we have to do is to hit "play" to go around the world with you! What is on the horizon for Sultans of String?
CM: Based on the experience we had working with the Turkish string players over Facebook, I'm pretty excited to meet them in person and to do some song writing and arranging with them. We're looking at possibly going to Turkey and Lebanon this summer to deepen our writing and arranging skills with these incredibly talented string players.