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Now for something completely different: Sultans of String in town for Christmas show Dec. 10

Toronto instrumental group draws influences from world music
The Sultans of String bring their Christmas Caravan show to Greater Sudbury on Dec. 10. (Supplied)

If you'd like to go to a holiday concert this month, but are looking for something a bit different, the Sultans of String's Dec. 10 stop in Greater Sudbury is just the ticket.

An instrumental group based out of Toronto, the group combines elements of Spanish flamenco, Arabic folk, Cuban rhythms and French Manouche Gypsy jazz, among other world music influences.

The three-time Juno Award nominees have recently released their first festive album, entitled Christmas Caravan.

Sultans of String founding members Kevin Laliberte and Chris McKhool — who plays the six-stringed violin and has an Egyptian-Lebanese background — began playing together in 2004.

“(Laliberte) came in as a substitute guitar player at a gig I had in Toronto,” McKhool said in a recent phone interview.

“I heard him warming up and he was playing that rumba rhythm. I said 'Ah man, what is that, that sounds amazing.' I realized you could take any song and play it to a rumba rhythm. It gives it all this drive and energy.”

He said the idea to do a Christmas album came from a conductor with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. At first McKhool said he wasn't really keen, but got more excited as he talked about the idea over dinner.

“We take in global rhythms — everything that comes here to Canada through musical immigration — and bring those global rhythms to those Christmas songs that people love to hear,” he said.

“There's a bunch of fan favourites, a couple of originals and some really interesting mash-ups between Christmas songs and our original music. We rip those songs back to their studs and find out what the kernel of greatness is.”

Expect to hear a djembe-driven Little Drummer Boy, a Feliz Navidad ska party, a Turkish twist on Greensleeves and a Rumba Flamenco-fuelled jingle bells.

The Sultans get out of their comfort zone to sing on the album, accompanied by special guests including Nikki Yanofsky, Alex Cuba and Crystal Shawanda.

Shawanda, who's originally from Manitoulin Island and is indigenous, sings Jesous Ahatonhia (Huron Carol) with newly-translated indigenous lyrics.

“We dug back into the archives and we realized the English lyrics people have been singing for the last 100 years are actually a complete rewrite,” said McKhool.

“We found the original Huron Wendat lyrics that were written in the 1600s, and the direct translations of those, we keyed them into songs so people can hear the original intent in the lyrics of those songs for the first time.”

Shawanda was “incredible” and “brought a lot of life to that track,” McKhool said. When asked if they chose her to sing that piece because she's indigenous, he said that's the case.

“We really do try to bring as much authenticity to these songs as we can,” McKhool said.

Sultans of String is currently touring North America with their Christmas Caravan show. They're accompanied by guest vocalist Rebecca Campbell.

If you'd like to catch their Greater Sudbury performance, the show, which is being presented by Jazz Sudbury and Northern Lights Festival Boréal, takes place at the Collège Boréal concert hall Dec. 10 at 7 p.m.

Tickets cost $30 in advance and $35 at the door. They can be purchased online through Event Brite, as well as at the Jazz Sudbury Office (96 Larch St.), the NLFB office (19 Grey St.) Jett Landry Music and A&J's Home Hardware.***

***An earlier version of this story said tickets were available at Gloria's Convenience. However, event organizers tell us the store is closed for renovations, so tickets are instead available at A&J Home Hardware.

Heidi Ulrichsen

About the Author: Heidi Ulrichsen

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