Last Friday night The Sultans of String held forth with their genre-bending folk music. This Canadian group from Toronto had arrived via Cornell to blast any expectations about folk music one might have. The performance marked exactly their ten-year anniversary from when violinist Chris McKhool teamed up with Canadian guitarist Kevin Laliberté. McKhool, from Lebanon, possesses a considerable jazz background while Laliberté specializes in flamenco. Both extraordinarily talented artists can play anything under the sun. Joined by Rosendo “Chendy” Leon from Cuba on panoply of drums, they received a powerful jazz-like backing on bass guitar from Drew Birston. These four musicians sounded like ten musicians.
Laliberté, who can play in any style ever invented, is the best guitarist I’ve heard since Jimi Hendrix. Laliberté now plays a Blackbird, a black carbon fiber style guitar made only in San Francisco. Apparently it can’t crack in sub-zero weather. McKhool is also a composer of some note. They played his composition “Luna” to conclude the first set. This was a hymn to a whale. In addition to hearing whale-like cries and ocean sounds, one hears sound bites of Bartok, Cage, and Ravi-Shankar cavorting like whipping tails. They incorporate some pre-recorded sound loops in their performance. You can listen to a YouTube clip of Luna below.
Their renditions of many traditional tunes are goosed up with musical phrases from various traditions that turn a national song, whether Irish, American, Hindu, Inuit, Hebrew, or Spanish into an international medley. While all of the group remain talented singers who can sing in harmony, their diction might be improved.
They play with the spontaneity of a hot jazz combo. McKhool cavorts mesmerizingly about the stage, playing and wagging his six-string violin, like a Sufi master. While they play folk tunes, it might be more accurate to label the group as folk-jazz masters. Like a jazz combo, they alternate group play with solo extemporary flights. The audience accompanied the musicians with clapping during several tunes and I was half expecting to see people dancing in the isle of Gardiner Theater.
The Sultans of String have the reputation of being Canada’s foremost representative of international music. They have garnered two JUNO Award nominations (the equivalent of our Grammy Award). Last year they recorded some tracks with The Chieftains. The Sultans of String have five albums available and McKhool has four solo albums of his own out. They make folk music interesting with their jazz warp.