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Sultans of String: Subcontinental Drift
by George Graham
(Independent As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/24/2016)
World Music remains one of the creative bright spots on the contemporary music scene, an alternative to the mindless computer-generated artificial commercial pop on one hand, and the retro scene on the other, trying recreate styles from the past. Especially interesting are projects that mix diverse and seemingly unrelated styles in ways that turn out to be interesting and more than just a culture clash for its own sake. A lot of worthwhile music has emerged influenced by African sounds. But lately, influences from India and the Middle East have been turning up. Of course, back in the 1960s, the Beatles helped to popularize Indian classical sitar music following their psychedelic journeys for enlightenment. And for a generation of music fans, the sound of the sitar will be associated with the 1960s psychedelic scene. But these days, the rhythms of the tabla drums are turning up, often mixed with an electronica beat.
This week, we have a creative and musically satisfying album that incorporates influences from India and Pakistan, as well as other styles from Celtic to flamenco. It’s the latest release by the Canadian group Sultans of String, and it’s called Subcontinental Drift, as in the Indian Subcontinent.
Sultans of String were formed around 2008 by fiddle player Chris McKhool and guitarist Kevin Laliberté, who often plays in the flamenco style. McKhool frequently plays Irish and Celtic music, so the combination has always been an interesting one. McKhool, though, has strong ties to the Middle East. He grew up in Ottawa from parents of Egyptian and Lebanese extraction, who maintained close ties to their ethnic background, while encouraging Chris to take up the violin originally from a classical approach. The mixture of ethnic backgrounds as McKhool was growing up naturally led to musical eclecticism in his own pursuits. Sultans of String have been quite commercially successful in Canada, scoring top airplay chart positions, and the group has brought its music to audiences in several countries, including an appearance on WVIA’s Homegrown Music series in 2012.
The new album is a collaboration with sitar player Anwar Khurshid, who is also a Canadian resident, though originally from the Middle East. Khurshid has created music for a number of films, including Life of Pi. After they met, McKhool says that Kharshid and the band have become musical and personal friends, and started creating music celebrating what they describe as the freedom and equality of living in Canada, and the hope of that diversity contributing to a better world.
The Sultans of String are a somewhat flexible group in performance, ranging from the duo of McKhool and Laliberté to a larger ensemble, up to an orchestra, which figured in their last album. The lineup on Subcontinental Drift includes Eddie Paton on additional guitars, bassist Drew Birston and percussionist Rosendo “Chendy” León. There are guests, including Ravi Naimpally on tabla and a number of vocalists who are heard on some of the tracks.
The result is a satisfying cross-cultural mix that also has a fair amount of Western pop influence so it’s likely to appeal to wider audiences than would otherwise go for such an eclectic mix of world music influences, including the Indian and Pakistani, the occasionally Celtic flavor of McKhool’s fiddle, the flamenco influenced guitar of Laliberté, and even some jam band tendencies at times.
The opening track Enter the Gate nicely serves as an introduction to the sound. The instrumental piece features the unmistakable sound of the sitar with McKhool’s fiddle that can alternately sound Irish and country. The rhythm seems more out of Nashville than Delhi. <<>>
In working with Khurshid, McKhool discovered that an Irish tune that has made its way to India during the period of colonization and became part of the culture there in a somewhat altered version. The piece is Rakes of Mallow and it features a nice pan-ethnic fusion. It’s in a medley with an original tune called Rouge River Valley. <<>>
With a more Indian sound is Ho Jamalo, which sitar player Anwar Kharshid sings in the Sindhi language. The piece is in praise of Canada and its freedom and diversity. <<>> The fairly lengthy piece goes through a number of changes including another guest vocalist Waleed Abdulhamid singing in a Sudanese dialect. <<>> Before it gets into a somewhat spacey jam with a guitar solo by Laliberté. <<>>
The more conventional Western pop side of the album is represented on the track A Place to Call Home, which is sung in English, with the Indian influence limited to some sonic embellishments. <<>>
One of the most intriguing pieces on the record is a cover of the Bob Dylan classic Blowin’ in the Wind. It’s a fun mix of a reggae beat with the Indian Bollywood influence. <<>>
The more exotic side of the album comes out on a piece called Snake Charmer which has elements of an Indian raga which eventually builds into a kind of world music jam. <<>>
Guest vocalist Shweta Subram puts in a very appealing performance on Parchan Shaal Pandhwar. It’s described as a song in the Sindhi culture about one person’s struggle for freedom. <<>>
Guitarist Kevin Laliberté wrote the title track Subcontintal Drift, which shows some of his flamenco influence, which is added to the Indian music textures in a kind of an atmospheric setting.
Subcontinental Drift, the new album by the Canadian world music fusion band Sultans of String with guest sitarist Anwar Khurshid is probably the best Sultans of String album yet. The mix of the Indian and Pakistani influence with the Celtic-flamenco-Gypsy conglomeration that the Sultans already brought to the table, makes for a worthwhile, sonically intriguing album, that still has enough conventional Western pop influences to make it appealing to audiences who would not normally be hard core world music fans. The collaboration does not forced but as if the players are having a good time cooking up their musical Mulligan and curry stew.
Our sound quality grade is close to an “A.” The mix has everything in the right place with the atmospheric textures quite effective. There is very little alteration of the sound in the studio, with the instruments and vocals seeming quite organic, real and warm. The dynamic range, how well the recording preserved the ebb and flow in volume, is decent compared to current standards of heavy compression that afflicts so many recordings these days.
When the sonic monotony of commercial pop gets to you, it’s nice to have something refreshingly multifaceted to reach for. The Sultans of String come up with some excellent and entertaining listening.
(c) Copyright 2016 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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