The release of Sultans of String's latest album, "Refuge" marks a major turning point for the Toronto-based band. It builds and expands on the collaborative process shown on the group's Christmas album, "Christmas Caravan", which featured so many guest artists it could have turned into a 2-disc set. But whereas "Christmas Caravan" had the five band members putting their music together and leaving space for their guests to fit in later, "Refuge" it was a fully collaborative project.
"This was the first album where we were so embedded in the creative process with our guests", say group spokesman Chris McKhool. "We really wanted those authentic voices to come out, so we could really shine a light on the exceptional talent of these artists. We were meeting with them very early in the process to come up with cool musical ideas together. Right up to the moment of hitting 'Record' on the machine, we were changing keys and forms and allowing things to flow as much as possible. And we recorded all together in the same room to get that effect."
"Refuge" is a wide-ranging 13-song exploration of the issues faced by displaced people around the world. There are over 30 musicians involved, including Bela Fleck, Robi Botos, Ifrah Mansour, Demetrios Petsalakis, Duke Redbird, Twin Flames and many more.
"The musicians are brave, talented, inspired", says Chris. "That inspiration couldn't be summed up more clearly than in the gorgeously evocative and powerful lyrics for "I Am A Refugee", penned and recited by Somali-American poet and multi-media artist, Ifrah Mansour. Mansour said, 'I wrote the poem for me, for my community and for those who are yearning for change, those who are yearning to deepen their empathy'."
Chris McKhool wanted the orchestra section to give an "old world" feel to the album. To that end he used the Gündem Yayli Grubu which works with many Turkish pop stars.
"They have a very distinct sound all of their own that cannot be replicated anywhere on the planet!", Chris says. "And it's also a nod to the music of my Lebanese ancestors."
The members of Sultans of String are each making their way through life during the COVID-19 pandemic as best they can and as creatively as they can.
"We have kept in touch but of course are not able to be together right now", says Chris. "Kevin (Laliberté) and Eddie (Paton) have been releasing great solo guitar videos, Drew (Birston) has been performing a lot of live streams with his wife Amanda Martinez, and Chendy (Leon Jr.) has been writing with a project of his called, The Elevator Collective. With Sultans of String I had been on the road for weeks at a time, and even when I was home, I was pre-occupied with planning the next tour. Ironically, despite my world as a touring artist crashing down around me, I have never been so busy or creative in my entire life! I have been creating and playing a ton of music with my educator wife and our nine year old daughter since the lockdown. Music is a big part of my life obviously, so I have basically bent my family's will to get them to play and perform with me, and we've turned our living room into a TV studio, broadcasting to Facebook. It's great for family bonding as we get to create it together and share with other families, so we can go through isolation in solitary together."
For more information on Sultans of String, go to sultansofstring.com.