Sultans of String will be at Abilene

05:00 AM, Nov 04, 2013

Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: Sultans of String.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Abilene Bar & Lounge, 153 Liberty Pole Way.
Tickets: $5 ages 21 and over, $8 for those under 21.

Sultans of String is an elusive ensemble. The groove-laden music ranges from Flamenco, Arabic, Cuban and gypsy jazz to the call of a lonely killer whale.

Even the dimensions of the band fluctuate. It’s a core of five players — that’s the lineup that the Sultans brought two summers ago to the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. For many road trips, it’s a group of four, “so we can fit in one minivan and two hotel rooms,” Chris McKhool says.

For its most recent album, Symphony!, the band was joined by a hand-picked collection of 55 classical musicians, plus guests such as Paddy Maloney of The Chieftains and the oud master Bassam Bishara.

Playing Thursday at Abilene Bar & Lounge, the Sultans will be stripped down to a duo: Co-founders McKhool on violin and Kevin Laliberté on guitar.

It turns into a little freak show,” McKhool says, “where we see how much noise two people can make.”

Symphony! has earned the Sultans their first appearance on the Grammy ballot, the short list compiled of acts worthy of consideration for the final list of five nominees. The group is battling it out with about three dozen other acts in the oh-so appropriate Classical Compendium category, “where they put all of the classical musicians when they don’t know where to put them,” McKhool says.

For the purposes of this story, we’ll put them in Toronto, where the band is based. But that’s seriously limited geography for this outfit, not only in the global reach of its sound, but how it produces that sound.

While Sultans of String will be reduced to its most-elemental form when it returns here, it will not be a night of simple string plucking. “We play acoustic instruments, but we plug them in,” McKhool says, quickly pointing out that “there’s a little pedal obsession within the band.” The Sultans turn to arrays of multiple reverbs and delays and electronic widgets such as the octiver, which allows McKhool to play his violin two octaves below its normal register, “in the cello range,” he says.

That violin has six strings rather than the usual four, so it already has a deeper range. It was built by Eric Aceto of Ithaca, known for his unusual violins, and it is expensive. McKhool had to sell off a few of his more-mundane instruments to cover the cost, although he still has a beautifully resonate four-string French violin and what he calls his beater, “a campfire violin, which might end up as campfire kindling some day.”

Despite the fire sale, McKhool managed to hang onto a few other curios. “I tell students that instruments travel in packs or gangs,” McKhool says, pointing out that his gang still includes a steel guitar and the guitalele, a guitar-ukulele hybrid. And his taste for the eclectic led him to create the world’s largest bicycle bell orchestra in a Toronto square.

The Sultans of String are also enthusiastic supporters of what McKhool calls “the third wave of ukulele coolness.” In the 1920s, he points out, much popular music was written for piano and ukulele. The ’50s saw it make a return “when they realized they could make them in China and sell them to kid as toys,” he says.

And this current wave, “I blame on the Internet,” he says. How-to videos have created not only new interest and accessible skills, but encouraged further Frankenstein conglomerations such as a ukulele tuned like a mandolin. “Ukulene?” McKhool muses.

Musical diversity extends to the rest of the Sultans. “I think one of the greatest things about Sultans of Strings is everyone has played with other bands,” he says. A couple of them have toured with guitarist Jesse Cook and Chantal Kreviazuk, a big pop star in Canada. Shaven-headed bassist Drew Birston holds deeper secrets. “There are videos on YouTube of him with a whole lotta hair,” McKhool says.

McKhool’s own experiences are varied; he studying classical violin when he was 7 and played with the Ottawa Youth Symphony. “Any kid who gets to play with other musicians is really lucky,” he says. “It just spurs you on.” As a young man, McKhool played banjo in an old-timey group and violin in a band called Club Django. “That’s where some of the gypsy jazz influence comes from,” he says. “I had to learn 100 tunes and play them really fast.”

All of this stringed wonder adds new life to the occasional cover song, like The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” and a rumba version of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” But most of the music by the Sultans is created by the group, through global influences that are surprisingly available. Recent collaborations with Toronto-area Cuban percussionists are paying off.

I was aware of Cuban music 19 years ago, but I totally didn’t get it,” McKhool says. He himself is of Lebanese descent — his family name is Makhoul — and a trip to Lebanon and the small and ancient Christian village called Kfarmichk shed light on his own Arabic musical roots. Which, again, are also a part of multi-cultural Toronto.

The town never grows because people keep moving to Canada to open trading stores, corner stores and restaurants,” McKhool says. “In fact, if you look in a kitchen at almost any restaurant in Toronto, you’ll see a Lebanese cooking in there. Even in Little Italy.”

The Lebanon trip led to the song “Road to Kfarmishki” on the Symphony! album, although McKhool is quick to point out that he would no more consider himself an Arabic musician than he thinks of himself as a killer whale. “Luna” was inspired by such an animal — revered by the local Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations — that once inhabited Nootka Sound near Vancouver Island. Through his pedal-fueled violin, McKhool is able to recreate the haunting, below-water call of the creature with stunning beauty.

Considering his travels and attention to nature, McKhool is more accurately described as a globally curious musician.

One of other things that drives me is trying to raise environmental awareness through music,” he says. “We’ve got to take care of this planet, because we only have one.”

Thus “Auyuittuq Sunrise” is inspired by a visit to Baffin Island, one of the planet’s largest islands, with much of it found above the Arctic Circle, far to the north of the Canadian mainland. The song “could possibly be the only rumba Flamenco written about the arctic,” McKhool says.

Likewise, his music wanderings led him to the Mishkeegogamang Ojibway Nation in the western wilds of Ontario, as one of a handful of songwriting clinic teachers flown into the bush country with bags and harmonicas and ukuleles for young music students.

They had gotten so far away from traditional teachings, and in recent years were trying to bring that back,” McKhool says. “So they bring an elder into the school.” With McKhool’s group, the elder was a woman named Josie. “Someone to teach the students how to hunt, trap and set up tents in the middle of the night,” he says. “She wouldn’t always look me straight in the eye when we talked. On the last day I was there, I learned that Josie was blind.”

And this blind woman who taught kids how to set up tents in the dark inspired a song, “Josie.”

McKhool and Sultans of String move in this circle of earth awareness. That’s how he met his wife, while both were attending a composting convention. Yes, such a thing does exist outside of Dave Barry novels. Catherine is a science department head at a Toronto-area high school.

We met over rotting refuse,” says McKhool, a man who allows no pun to go unwanted. “Things grew organically from there.”