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One On One With Chris McKhool, Leader of Sultans of String



The Sultans of String have been keeping a steady and busy performance schedule this year. They are now getting ready for a two-consecutive nights of concerts with the Ontario Philarmonic Orchestra. First, on Friday, November 28th, they perform in Oshawa at Regent Theatre and then in Markham at Flato Markham Theatre on Saturday, November 29th. On Saturday, December 4th, they perform in Toronto at Koerner Hall, premiering their Sultans and Divas concert.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Chris McKhool. We talked about the upcoming concerts and about some other topics of interest for those who follow him and the great ensemble he leads, the Sultans of String. Please keep on reading.

Danilo Navas: We’re going to talk about the three upcoming concerts and the different concepts. I know that two of them are with the Ontario Symphony and the other one is the Sultans and Divas, right?

Chris McKhool: Right! There are two entirely different types of concerts. One at Koerner Hall is entirely the Sultans of String. It’s a multi artist night; no orchestra… And then the one with the Ontario Philharmonic Orchestra on November 28 and 29 and that’s just Sultans of String with a 45/50 piece orchestra.

DN: Okay so let’s get started…The first one is going to be in Oshawa, right?

CM: Yes, the first one is on November 28 at the Regent Theatre in Oshawa and then the next night at Flato-Markham, and that’s with the Ontario Philharmonic Orchestra, which is a world-class orchestra made up of players from other orchestras including the Toronto Symphony (Orchestra)… These are the best players around and it’s really going to be a treat… really spectacular. There is nothing better than hearing our music played by 50 of the world’s top players behind us. And these players, these performers can read anything that you throw at them… they’re real pros. So we have one rehearsal with them the day before and then we have the dress rehearsal on the day of the first performance; the Friday and then away we go… we start performing. (laughs). A real whirlwind…

DN: And then we have the next one at Flato-Markham Theatre the next day…?

CM: That’s right. I am so excited about that… That’s going to be our second or third time… Our third time at Flato-Markham Theatre….You know it’s such a wonderful theatre. It seats about 500-550 people; so it’s small enough to give you that intimate feeling, yet big enough to make you feel that you’re in a large concert hall… It’s such a special space and so close from Toronto that I know a lot of people are going to travel up from Toronto to see the artists in Markham instead of seeing them in Toronto because you get to be that much closer to the action…

DN: That’s right, I’ve been there a couple of times… It’s a great venue.

CM: … And the parking is easy… all those things that people with cars have to think about… Here we’re going to be performing material from our Symphony album, which we released last year and since then, we’ve taken it right across the country… we’ve performed just a couple of weekends ago with the Vancouver Symphony (at the Orpheum October 24 & 25, 2014) and we’re with the Edmonton Symphony in January…. So it’s really great that this project has taken off in ways that we could not have dreamed about… really unimaginable just a few years ago.

DN: So, let’s talk about Koerner Hall, which is a different concept.

CM: Yeah. So that’s part of the Sultans and Divas show. That’s going to be very exciting for us as well. This multi-artist concert features our band with mezzo-soprano and CBC radio host Julie Nesrallah; soprano Miriam Khalil; master oud player Bassam Bishara and the Montreal ensemble OktoEcho… It’s a chance for us to lay not only Arabic-inspired music, but also to collaborate with other artists… You know, Bassam and Miriam are going to be doing a duet… Bassam me and a violin are going to be sitting in on a tune with OktoEcho , and then Bassam is going to play with Sultans of String… and then everybody in the whole bill performs together for the very last song… And we’re doing all that together just on the day of the show, so it’s going to have that very fresh, flying-by-the-seat-of- your-pants sort of thing, which is the best way to do it, because if you over-rehearse it then it gets boring. This way everyone’s going to be hyper-aware of things so we’re all going to be watching and listening and learning as we all go along; it will be really fun…

DN: Right… that’s the element of improvisation… very cool!

CM: It’s great for us because not only are we going to perform in that glorious Koerner Hall, but it will deepen our connections with these other artists… because that’s how collaborations with (other) artists come about; you know most of the beautiful collaborations come about at festivals; let’s say that you’re at a jazz festival, you don’t really get to do that in a concert hall setting, so that’s going to be exciting not just for us, but the others as well…

DN: Any chance that you might be recording this project in the future?

CM: Oh, I haven’t got to that stage yet, you know that now we’re in the middle of recording our fifth album, which is with sitar player Anwar Khurshid. He’s an amazing, amazing Pakistani-Canadian, who plays just a few notes and you’re blown away right there. So we’re writing material for that…

DN: Is this the guy you played with for the Kingston Rd. United Church program (in Toronto), back on May 4th this year?

CM: Yes, exactly. Funny you should mention that because I was just thinking today that our fifth CD should be a collaboration with Arabic artists… Maybe this is the start of something that could have legs! By the way, what did you think of the concert at the Kingston Rd. United Church?

DN: It was fantastic. The Sultans of String meeting your special guest, sitar master Anwar Khurshid was a very special combination indeed. I invited my brother-in-law and his wife. He was so moved by the music that he bought all the CDs you had on sale after the concert.

DN: Let’s talk about this concept of your band trying to lock in with orchestral musicians, resulting in an interesting push and pull with improvising musicians on stage!

CM: Right, we really come from two different worlds actually; the Sultans of String is an improvising group, so a lot of what we do comes from looking at each other; listening… watching each other’s hands; trying to figure out where the other is going and someone can just suggest “go to the bridge” and we can all go to the bridge… it’s easy that way, but with the orchestra, everything—every single note in every single bar—is written out; so there’s often time when we get carried away with the music and we suddenly realise that the orchestra has moved on because that is what is written in their scores, you know… There is also this element in the band, where we are every groove-based, kind of funky groove-orientated, whereas with the orchestra—not that they are very stilted; they are absolute masters of their instruments and can play anything with them, but sometimes it may turn out that they are playing a little bit behind the beat, while we are a little bit ahead of the beat or vice-versa. There might be this kind of push and pull with the orchestra. Usually there might be just one or two spots where we might get out of sync with the orchestra, but no more than that… we always end up catching up you know. Sometimes, like in our last concert, we just stopped playing for a bar, just to listen to them and then we just jumped back on again. But 99.99 percent of the time we are always together and it is the most glorious thing because you are bringing two worlds together… that very groove-based world and the very lush orchestral, symphonic sound and then you have something more powerful than when you hear each of us on our own. For me it is almost distracting sometimes because the sound is so beautiful… melding together what is written and what is improvised… it is like taking western music to the very edge of art that it is such an astonishing sound; such a surprising sound that I am always astonished when I hear it.

DN: And then it comes the part of funding and making this happen from the financial point of view.

CM: Yes, it is very expensive to record and perform with orchestras in North America, but that’s what we’re committed to doing because we know that we have the very best players on the planet living here in our own backyard so why go to eastern Europe when we can do it right here. The reason why so many people go to Eastern Europe to record is because it is so much less expensive, but what we wanted to do was to figure out a way to record/perform right here in Canada. We were very lucky; we applied to Canada Council for a grant to get our scores made and we were successful with that so we had Rebecca Powers come in… she’s done a lot of major scoring for IMAX and Hollywood films and the Cincinnati Orchestra and other major orchestras; we were able to get her to do our scoring for us. And then we applied for funding to do the recording from Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council and Factor and we were successful. Toronto Arts Council helped us with funding to do the song-writing. Part of the success was that we had early success with the first granting agency; so we took that to the next agency and said, “Look we have been helped here already and now we would like to have funds to get to the next part of the assignment,” and when we were successful there, we took that and went to the next agency and did the same until we were able to complete what we had set out to do.

DN: So you got it all done?!

CM: Yeah. We were very lucky. You know we also made a lot of friends in the US, where we perform a lot as well. But they do not have the Arts Councils there like we have here in Canada. They have family foundations and private foundations that will fund some kinds of things similar to what we are doing here. I am so grateful that the Arts Councils here saw the value in what we are doing here and helped us to get to where we wanted to be with these projects, like hiring 50 symphony musicians, and doing everything like the recording of the overdubs and doing everything from the mixing and the mastering… getting it all done right here in Canada was a challenge, but also something that we were so grateful that we were able to do…

DN: And then there is the part that deals with selling. You know that you are an indie band and we know that CDs are kind of history now…

CM: Yeah, there is almost no place for retail…

DN: So what was your experience with the last CD in this regard?

CM: Well, people are not buying CDs so much anymore. That’s what happened to books and even clothing. Recently my wife bought our daughter a winter jacket and it was all done online and it came to our porch you know? Like everything seems to be going online now…. For musicians there is always a danger that someone could copy your music and just stream it… we also know from the Taylor Swift example that she was not making much money from the online streaming sites but the one thing that cannot be replaced in the digital age is the live performance. So that is where we have concentrated: trying to perform as much as we can because there is absolutely nothing in the world like being touched by a live performance. It can move you in such a deep way and it can change your life you know… Music really saved my life when I was younger… So to be able to share that with others is the greatest gift we could ask for. And on top of this people are still buying CDs when we are performing live—whether it be a concert stage or a festival—that is where the CD sales happen, just like your brother-in-law who was so moved by that performance on Kingston Road that he bought one of everything that was on that (CD) table. It is people like him who make us want to perform more and record more… At least that is still happening.

DN: And that is the way that it is happening all over… You know you’re not the only one to whom this is happening. There are others, you know. That is the new reality now…

CM: That is the new reality and it’s nice to have the CD, because they have made a real connection to the music on that night… it is like a really nice reminder of what they saw and it is a really nice way to relive that experience too.

DN: Let’s go back a again to the new CD that you are making.

CM: Oh, Yes… the one with Anwar Khurshid? He’s been on major soundtracks like The Life of Pi and The Love Guru and he even taught Mike Myers how to hold the sitar and how to play a few notes… he’s got some good stories about that. He’s such a great guy… such a pure spirit and a nice soul… not just a great musician you know. He teaches you not just about Indian music but also a few things about how to be a better person.
So we have been recording now; we’ve got ten songs that we have in the bag and these are co-writes between Anwar and me and Kevin and I am really looking forward to completing this project. One of the things that music of this kind does is that it breaks down barriers and enables people to learn from each other, and I feel that I have learned more with this recording than I have in a very long time.

DN: Let me go a bit forward and talk about the Pan-American Games.

CM: Yeah, I hope that we can participate in some way. I know that my wife has put in a bid for a bunch of tickets to see the Games… (laugh) We’ve done a few events for the Games already in Markham to do with the Pan Am Games. So I hope that we will be able to do more things and contribute to that great event.

DN: Thank you Chris for sharing your thoughts with our readers.

CM: Thanks to you for allowing us to reach your readers.

Photos by: Danilo Navas


Founder, Editor and Webmaster for Latin Jazz Network and World Music Report. Danilo is a passionate and committed communicator with a sensibility for the arts whose hometown is Toronto, Canada.

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