While the day after Halloween may have been too soon for the Christmas music – early and often works for retailers – we’re probably heading into a more appropriate time, with the big day just a month away.
For Chris McKhool and the rest of the Sultans of String, now really is the time, as they kick off their Christmas Caravan tonight (Thursday) in Owen Sound, arriving in Kitchener Sunday for two shows at The Registry Theatre.
Where the world music aficionados used to throw some carols into the mix as it got closer to Christmas, this marks the second year for a formal holiday tour, coinciding with the release last year of their sixth album, appropriately enough called Christmas Caravan. They’ll be on the road in Ontario, B.C. and the U.S. northeast right up until the eve of Christmas Eve.
Known for their fusion of Celtic reels, flamenco, Gypsy-jazz, Arabic, Cuban, and South Asian rhythms, the Sultans of String have received numerous awards and accolades since being formed 10 years ago. They apply their trademark mix of styles to the Christmas album and the concerts that follow.
Christmas Caravan expands on the notion of holiday music, though there are plenty of traditional numbers you’ll recognize. For Sundays shows – the 3 p.m. concert having virtually sold out, a second was added for 7:30 p.m. – there’ll be a mix of classics and tunes penned by the band, all in their unique style, notes McKhool.
“We’re making this music our own – this is the style and the vibe that we want to play. We want to share the world music rhythms with people,” he says.
“We wanted to make a real contribution to the Christmas repertoire, and hopefully create some new standards” says McKhool. “This is a seasonal album, but approached from the perspective of a world-music band. We explored diverse genres, from Quebecois fiddle tunes to collaborating with a traditional Turkish string ensemble, and jump around from the classic sounds of the Andrews Sisters, to a Himalayan sleigh ride, African roots music, Gypsy-jazz, rumba flamenco, ska and the grandeur of the symphony.”
The Sultans draw on traditional songs, some of them centuries old. There’s a tune based on Greensleeves, for instance, and the band’s take on the Huron Carol (also known as Twas in the Moon of Wintertime) is based on the original version by Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf around 1640 rather the translation from the last century. But also Jingle Bells in the style of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.
There’s a big effort to get to the, well, roots of the music they play, making use of world rhythms and jazz foundations.
“We bring the energy and drive of those sounds to the Christmas songs we do,” says McKhool.
“It’s like having a ton of different colours in your paint box,” he adds of the band’s many influences.
Often an instrumental act, the Sultans are all in good voice for the Christmas shows, which really do call for singing. In addition to McKhool and his violin, the Sultans are Kevin Laliberté (flamenco guitar), Eddie Paton (flamenco guitar), Drew Birston (bass) and Chendy Leon (percussion).
To add to the chorus, they’re joined for this tour by Rebecca Campbell, with the renowned chanteuse putting her touch on the likes of Hark the Herald Angels and The Little Drummer Boy.
In Kitchener, Latina vocalist Amanda Martinez will also join the festivities – look for her take on The Christmas Song.
In the spirit of the season, the Sultans of String are fundraising partners with UNHCR, the United Nations Agency for Refugees in Canada, which provides shelter, food, water, medical care and other life-saving assistance to refugees around the world.
The Sultans of String take to the stage at 3 and 7:30 p.m. on October 25 at The Registry Theatre, 122 Frederick St., Kitchener. Tickets are $30, available by calling 519-578-1570, online or at the door.