Music that reflects a diverse world – and perhaps a break from some of its troubles – will fill the Registry Theatre Sunday at the release party for the latest CD from the Sultans of String, Sanctuary.
The album is the second in the band’s “Refuge Project,” an international collaboration of artists that looks at the issues of displaced peoples. The first of the albums, Refuge, looks at the light of international refugees, for instance.
“As Ifrah Mansour, one of our collaborators, says, it’s important for people to hear a message of hope, but also a message of pain. I think that it’s important for people to see the humanity in others, and to see that we are all one race, the human race,” said violinist and bandleader Chris McKhool of the spirit behind the latest albums from the Sultans.
The band has always, of course, been about world music, and is no stranger to working with a bevy of other performers. That’s the case writ large with Refuge and Sanctuary, a collaboration with more than 30 musicians, including the likes of Robi Botos, Béla Fleck, Mansour, Demetrios Petsalakis and Duke Redbird.
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It’s a roster of global ambassadors for peace, many of whom are recent immigrants and refugees to Canada, as well as leading Indigenous voices. On Sanctuary, Sultans of String bring their unique brand of musical synergy to bear on 11 songs that speak to the challenges facing the world’s displaced peoples: their stories, their songs, their persistence and their humanity.
“Everyone deserves a place where they can survive and thrive. There is enough room for all of us, we just have to learn to be open and to share our knowledge and our love and care for one another,” said McKhool on the line from the band’s Toronto base ahead of the next stage of touring.
While the albums tackle some pressing issues, the process has also been about having “a lot of fun,” he added, with a laugh.
“When we get this many interesting people in a room, there’s so much to learn from everybody. There’s so many wonderful perspectives – it’s just like when you’re brainstorming on a topic, the more ideas and perspectives you have, the richer you are. This is a model that we would hope our leaders and politicians would look to and take inspiration from.”
That energy is clearly on display during live performances, McKhool adds.
Joining Sultans of String on stage at the Registry will be Syrian refugee and vocalist Leen Hamo, Colombian refugee and vocalist Juan Carlos Medrano, Saskia Tomkins performing on the Swedish nyckelharpa, Syrian Canadian clarinetist Majd Sukar, and Tamar Ilana singing in Ladino, Spanish and performing flamenco dance. Joining virtually will be Turkish string group Gundem Yayli Grubu and others performers.
The virtual component is something we’ve all become familiar with through the pandemic, with audiences accustomed to what the technology can bring to the mix.
That makes it really fun because we could be performing with somebody live on stage and somebody live on the screen. And, you know, we could be crossing countries and time zones, and there’s just all kinds of, it just opens up a world of possibilities of what you can do live in a performance, which is really fun,” said McKhool.
Given that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the always-present issue of global conflict and refugees to more prominence, the stories of peace and journeys to personal freedom reflected in Sanctuary couldn’t be more timely.
For example, singing siblings Ahmed and Tara Moneka from Iraq revisit and give a new, darker feel to the Sonny Bono-penned Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) made famous through versions by both Cher and Nancy Sinatra. Ahmed himself came under threat for portraying homosexuality in a film that gained popularity after screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). While at TIFF, extremists visited his family in Iraq and warned that they were planning to kill him if he returned home. Ahmed’s sister Tara soon faced similar threats for playing music that offended those same extremists. Ultimately the siblings both found refuge in Canada.
Another Sanctuary song, Mi Santuario, could be taken as a de facto title track, written by Juan Carlos Medranos (Colombia), capturing the paradox of many displaced people.
“It’s about that feeling of missing home but also the fear of returning to a place where dissidents and the marginalized go missing.”
The Sultans of String and their guests, in-person and virtual, will be playing songs from Refuge and Sanctuary Sunday afternoon.
“We’re really going to take our audiences around the world with global songs and rhythms. Some of them are really fun – clap-along songs. Others are beautiful to watch. We have Tamar Ilana, who’s going to be doing both flamenco and Arabic dance. So a lot of fun in store for audiences and songs that they’ve never seen as performed,” said McKhool, adding with a laugh: “Live songs that we’ve never seen us perform live before.”
The Sanctuary CD release concert hits the stage at the Registry Theatre at 3 p.m. on November 27. Tickets are $37, available online at www.registrytheatre.com.