WORLD MUSIC SUPER GROUP SULTANS OF STRING RELEASE EPIC 7TH ALBUM, REFUGE
Addressing the struggles of life on Mother Earth has always inspired Toronto-based quintet, Sultans of String. On their visionary seventh album, Refuge, Sultans of String bring their unique brand of musical synergy and collaboration to bear on 13 songs that speak to the challenges facing the world’s displaced peoples--their stories, their songs, their persistence and their humanity.
Joined by an international cast, some of whom are recent immigrants to North America, the celebrated quintet immerses themselves in the plight of the international refugee on Refuge, and the humanitarian response that should greet everyone in search of a home.
“This project is centered around the positive contributions of refugees and new immigrants to U.S.A. and Canada,” says bandleader Chris McKhool (ancestral name Makhoul), whose Lebanese grandfather stowed away on a ship bound for North America a century ago.
“We’re collaborating with special guests on the album who are newcomers to this land, Indigenous artists, as well as global talents who have been ambassadors for peace. We wish to celebrate the successes of those who make the journey here and bring their extraordinary talents with them. We hope the conversations we can have as musicians will provide a model for peace that will inspire our politicians and citizens.”
Sultans of String’s McKhool, five-stringed violin, vocals; Kevin Laliberté, nylon, steel, and electric guitar, vocals; Eddie Paton, nylon and steel guitar, vocals; Drew Birston, bass, vocals; and Rosendo Chendy León, percussion, vocals, join forces with an extraordinary cast of internationally-based musicians on Refuge. The album’s 13 songs include contributions from renown American banjoist Béla Fleck, Hungarian-Canadian keyboardist, Robi Botos, Somali-American poet Ifrah Mansour, Greek-Canadian oud player Demetrios Petsalakis, Iraqi violinist Imad Al Taha, Iranian santur master, Amir Amiri, and many more.
Refuge reflects its theme of working together for a common goal, the quintet recording with 30 amazing musicians who’ve come to North America as recent immigrants and refugees, each with exceptional talent and extraordinary stories. Like Imad, now living in Ohio, whose house was destroyed by a grenade because he played violin for the wrong faction in Iraq. Or Amir, whose wrist was broken by thugs in Iran for playing “illegal scales” on his instrument. Or Iraqi actor and singer, Ahmeh Moneka, unable to return home after receiving death threats for portraying a gay man in a film.
"We love to expose people to sounds they might not have heard before," explains McKhool, summarizing the mission statement of the groundbreaking and acclaimed world music ensemble. "And we love collaborating with other artists."
Thrilling listeners across North America with their genre-hopping fusion of Celtic reels, flamenco, Gypsy jazz, Arabic, Cuban, and South Asian rhythms, Sultans of String celebrate diversity and creativity, with warmth and virtuosity on every album. From their 2007 debut, Luna, and 2011’s JUNO nominated Yalla Yalla to 2013’s Symphony! and 2017’s chart-topping, Christmas Caravan, Sultans of String achieve in song what seems nearly impossible elsewhere, a true fusion of language, style, culture, and spirit.
As Ojibway Elder Duke Redbird says in opening song, “The Power of the Land,” “The spirit of the people is equal to the power of the land,” a call for unity among peoples and with the earth that gives them life and sustenance. The song features the interwoven vocals of spoken-word artist Redbird and Quebec’s Indigenous folk duo, Twin Flames.
"I actually heard Duke recite that poem years ago," McKhool says. "I was so moved that I introduced myself to him after the performance and asked, 'Have you ever thought about putting this to music?' " Fast-forward three years, to the day when McKhool completed the profound backing track for Redbird's stirring words. "It was just one of those beautiful moments where I realized those lyrics might work perfectly."
Over a glowing guitar rhythm, yearning violin and powerful drums, “The Power of the Land” is a mediation, an anthem, a call to arms, and a call for mercy. Redbird’s spoken word verses are solemn and moving, given release in Twin Flames’ Jaaji and Chelsey June’s uplifting chorus, an homage to Mother Earth itself.
Redbird expresses: “It's essential that we understand that nature is our survival and survival is nature. Money and power has interrupted the power of the land, and until we understand that nature is the real economy and the economy is nature and that's the only way we're going to survive, is if we take care of our mother, the Earth. And money and power, it doesn't really have a place in the healing associated with what needs to be done as the climate changes and the earth retrieves her sacredness and plants it in our minds and our bodies.”
“Hurricane” pulsates over a joyous, Latin-style rhythm complimented by the evocative strings of Turkey’s Gündem Yayli Grubu, Sammy Figueroa’s compelling congas, and the stirring world percussion of Mehmet Akatay. McKhool sings “And I survived/ And I feel strong / And for the first time in my life I feel like I belong.” The groove is irresistible, the melody infectious, the message timeless.
“’Hurricane’ is an ode to the many who came to the New World planning to work hard and save up enough to bring their loved ones over,” McKhool explains. “Sometimes it didn’t work out, partners would pass away before they had the chance to be reunited. Other stories have a happier ending. This is a journey that has repeated many times, right up to the present day, with some of the guest performers on Refuge saving up to sponsor their parents to come join them. We release this album for all those who travel great distances at extreme risk, to make new lives for themselves and their children, and parents.”
The song’s strings were recorded in Istanbul with Gündem Yayli Grubu, a collection of Roma string players that work with many Turkish pop stars. “They have a very distinct sound all of their own,” McKhool says, “that cannot be replicated anywhere on the planet.” Gündem Yayli Grubu give a strong flavor of the ‘old world’ to “Hurricane,” McKhool’s personal ode to the first Lebanese immigrants to North America.
Combining Syrian, Greek and Turkish influences, Lebanese traditional song “El Bint El Shalabeya” could be mistaken for an international surf rock hit, its undulating Turkish strings, Zorro-styled electric guitar and twist beat an inspired mashup of nationalities and personalities.
The song’s clarinetist, Majd Sekkar, currently a Canadian resident, says “Understand that there is [a variety] of nationalities and ethnicities [in] this land, and you have to respect them and learn from them. Explore the Canadian culture and traditions – then add your back-home experience to have a good mix… Canadians are the kindest people in the world.”
“Music is about sharing ideas with people,” adds “Hurricane”’s oud player, Demetrios Petsalakis. “In Canada it's great, because it allows us to meet the world class musicians who live in Toronto, experts in their field. Something you wouldn't find in a lot of places. So that's beautiful. And when you bring all these people together and meet and play music together, you become like a family. Music is awesome."
That is a sentiment reflected by American banjo innovator Béla Fleck, who also reflects thoughtfully on his roots: “My family's story involves immigration. Of course, we came in through Ellis Island, my grandparents on my mother's side, Jewish-Russian refugees. I was fortunate that they were able to get out of a dangerous part of the world, and that America took them in at that time.
“The banjo is a story of immigration,” Béla continues, “It's a perfect story of immigration, involuntary immigration. The slaves came to the Americas, not of their own free will, but when they got there, they brought their culture. They built banjos and they played their music, and it got incorporated into what would become American music, and became a major part of it. Yeah, if the banjo isn't going to welcome people from different countries, I don't know who would.”
The musicians of Refuge are brave, talented, inspired. That inspiration couldn’t be summed up more clearly than in the gorgeously evocative and powerful first single, “I Am a Refugee,” its lyrics penned and recited by Somali-American poet and multi-media artist, Ifrah Mansour, who now makes her home in the Twin Cities.
The song unfurls, Mansour’s powerful words, the tale of the international refugee laid bare, its mesmerizing groove never disguising the song’s frankness.
“I am a refugee,” Mansour speaks, “globally villainized, but I bring you a slice of my home, right here in your backyard. I walked and ran and screamed miles on end to find peace before I could pronounce my own name. “
"I wrote the poem for me, for my community,” said Mansour, “and for those that are yearning for change, those are yearning to deepen their empathy," explains Mansour. "Writing the poem was a way to unleash some pain that I could name finally – I wrote it because I was so frustrated with so many people sending me emails and asking me what I thought about the travel ban, the first time our American government here shared the first travel ban. And that an artist’s job is to draw that hope, especially in a time of deep hopelessness."
Sultans of String have never taken the easy road. Since releasing their debut 2007 album, Luna, they’ve strived to make each chart-topping album more meaningful than the last. That included working with an orchestra (2013's Symphony!), teaming with Pakistani sitarist Anwar Khurshid (2015's Subcontinental Drift) and even crafting a world-music holiday album (2017's Christmas Caravan), which landed them on the Billboard charts and in The New York Times. The quintet’s ambition and work ethic have garnered them multiple awards and accolades, including three Juno nominations, first place in the International Songwriting Competition (out of 15,000 entries), three Canadian Folk Music Awards, and countless other honors. They received over 40 awards and nominations in total since 2007.
Sultans of String have collaborated with Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains, Richard Bona, Benoit Bourque (Bottine Souriante), Nikki Yanofsky, Alex Cuba, Ruben Blades, Crystal Shawanda and Ken Whiteley.
Refuge aims for an international hybrid, and the band’s knack for coalescing musical styles and sounds is only matched by their global mission for unity and oneness of spirit.
"I've always wanted our concerts to be a place where everyone feels welcome,” McKhool says. “I want to reach out to diverse communities to say, 'Come out and enjoy music with us — you're going to have a really good time.' And it's great to see people from, say, the South Asian community mixed in with the hipster crowd. Or to play some very small towns where they might not have heard a sitar played live before. It benefits society as a whole, to have people from around the world blending their ideas, mixing their cultures."
Sultans of String raise awareness and funds while on tour for the UN Refugee Agency. They have raised over $8000 in 2020 to help provide medical supplies and attention, clean water, and shelter to some of the 70 million displaced peoples around the globe.
The artists + their stories...