The Sultans of String with Anwar Khurshid
NAC Presents
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Thursday, April 14, 2016 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

The Sultans of String played to the crowd – with a great deal of success – at their high-energy show at the NAC Fourth Stage Thursday evening. The room was packed, and, from the first song onwards, the group's wide-ranging mix of musical sources clearly connected with much of the audience.

Kevin Laliberté (guitar) and Anwar Khurshid (sitar) played a two song duet combining their different musical traditions at the Sultans of String concert at the NAC. It was one of the highights of the show. ©Brett Delmage, 2016
Kevin Laliberté (guitar) and Anwar Khurshid (sitar) played a two song duet combining their different musical traditions at the Sultans of String concert at the NAC. It was one of the highights of the show. ©Brett Delmage, 2016
The Sultans were primarily playing from their latest album, Subcontinental Drift, which adds an extra voice and musical tradition – Pakistani-Canadian musician Anwar Khurshid and his sitar – to their existing mix of Gypsy jazz, Arabic and Cuban rhythms, and flamenco. On the right of the stage, Khurshid sat on a raised stage with his sitar; in the middle were bassist Drew Birston, violinist Chris McKhool, and guitarist Kevin Laliberté, each with an amp and a substantial pedal/effects board; and on the left was percussionist Rosendo 'Chendy' Leon, who fitted in an amazing number of drums, cymbals, and percussion instruments into a small space.

In classical Indian music, the violin, guitar, and percussion (though tablas instead of cajons) do feature prominently, so it wasn't a big jump to combine sitar with the Sultans' standard instrumentation – and the reverse was true, too, with the sitar adding a metallic sharpness reminiscent of pedal steel to a few of the Sultans' older hits.

And with nearly 200 years of British rule, there has been considerable cultural exchange already in the Indian subcontinent. The second song in the show demonstrated this – “The Rakes of Mallow” is a song which, when Khurshid originally played it for them, McKhool and Laliberté immediately recognized as an Irish fiddle tune. In fact, it's also a traditional Pakistani tune – by adoption. The version they played in the show had a bit of both traditions: first the traditional Irish interpretation on violin and guitar, followed by Khurshid joining in with his high-energy version on sitar, with vocals in Urdu.

That was most interesting aspect of the concert to me – when the musicians took traditional music and created new combinations that worked in several contexts, without losing the integrity of their origins. For example, the very first song, “Enter the Gate”, featured a violin and sitar duet, a melodic conversation that gained considerable energy from Leon's strong drumming and Laliberté's rumba guitar underneath.

The highlight of the show, for me, was the beginning of the second set, when Laliberté and Khurshid were alone on stage for two songs. Laliberté's “Hills of Green” was an atmospheric folk/jazz piece full of developing and changing guitar motifs, to which Khurshid added sitar accents. In “Snake Charmers”, on the other hand, Khurshid took the lead in creating complicated sitar riffs and bent notes to which Laliberté added flamenco guitar. The two musicians created a compelling collaboration which circled upwards more and more energetically before ending in a held note.

The audience, which contained people of many different ages and ethnicities, greeted the cross-cultural music with particularly strong applause – there was no problem in making a connection.

I was impressed with the quality of the musicianship displayed on-stage, in particular the Cuban rhythms of Rosendo 'Chendy' Leon. He actually had listeners at the back rising to their feet to clearly see the many different percussion effects he was evoking. Whether it was his hard-edged drumming on the box-like cajon, or quieter playing on drums and cymbals, or atmospheric effects on bells and shakers, he was a man constantly in motion and constantly adding energy and fullness to the Sultans' sound, as well as creating imaginative and evolving solos featuring a mixture of hand and sticks drumming (for example, on “Monti’s Revenge”). Although he was clearly coming from a Cuban tradition, his playing complemented the sitar very well.

I also liked how Birston used pedals to create a noticeably echoing and shining sound to end “A Place to Call Home”, nicely enhancing McKhool's heartfelt vocals on the song.

For a few songs in both sets, Genevieve Beaulieu performed interpretative dance. Performing barefoot and wearing a caste mark on her forehead, she swayed sinuously to the music, complementing it with a visual representation of its melodies.

The parts of the show I enjoyed least were when I felt the musicians were pandering to the audience. It was cool when Laliberté showed off his carbon-fiber guitar, but I was more frustrated than interested when he performed what was clearly a well-rehearsed shtick of playing a dozen or so different styles on guitar, one after the other, about 10 seconds each. I didn't want him to show he could play jazz or bossa nova or flamenco for a few seconds – I wanted him to play those at length in a song.

Similarly, the two pop songs (both of which were, to be fair, on the group's albums) were the least interesting part of the show. “Blowing in the Wind” was included on their latest album because Khurshid had played it in Pakistan and it fit the album's theme of freedom. I felt the group gave it too rousing a treatment; it needed to be more questioning and low-key. Similarly, Neil Young's “Heart of Gold” is a lament, but they gave it a rumba flamenco feel – far too upbeat for the lyrics. And both songs, to me, are just over-exposed; I can't see that there's anything anyone can add to them.

So how would you define this music? The musicians in Sultans of String certainly have a jazz background and their previous albums have had a substantial jazz component, but I think the catch-all term of world music better fit what they played at this concert. Probably the jazziest tune in the concert was “Luna”, a fine multi-layered melodic piece with strong Gypsy jazz accents, from one of their earlier albums, which ended the first set and received strong applause.

The show certainly was a practiced and well-thought-out combination of their different traditions, well-paced and done with considerable flair and showmanship and an effort to involve the audience. I'd like to hear the Sultans and Khurshid take their collaboration even further, perhaps adding a tabla player and adding pieces to their repertoire which dig further into Indian-Pakistani music, as other jazz musicians have done successfully.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set 1:

  • Enter the Gate
  • The Rakes of Mallow/Rouge River Valley
  • Ho Jamalo
  • Blowing in the Wind (Bob Dylan)
  • A Place to Call Home
  • Road to Kfarmishki
  • Luna

Set 2:

  • Hills of Green
  • Snake Charmers
  • Parchan Shaal Panhwar
  • Monti’s Revenge
  • Heart of Gold (Neil Young)
  • El-Kahira
  • Auyuittuq Sunrise
  • encore: Yalla Yalla!

Read the interview with Chris McKhool about this show: