The Christmas album has almost become a banal cliche. But not to Ottawa native Chris McKhool and his band of merry music makers, the Sultans of String.
For these players, it’s go big or go home every time out and so this season they have released an 18-song CD with a string of guest artists that includes the Panamanian star Rubén Blades, the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, the patriarch of Celtic music Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, Alex Cuba, along with an orchestra from the Czech Republic.
The Sultans are currently on their Christmas Caravan tour and will play in a sold out concert in Ottawa Dec. 18 at the NAC. But before the show ARTSFILE had a chance to chat with McKhool about the concert and the album.
“We thought it would be really fun to bring the energy and drive of world music rhythms to the Christmas songs that people like to hear” at this time of year, he said.
The album, therefore, is not your typical Christmas CD.
The Sultans’s interests are global so infused in this record are Arabic rhythms, Cuban rhythms, some East Coast Celtic, Gypsy jazz from Eastern Europe … “pretty much everything under the sun.”
The search for the right music to play does require research and that turned up some surprises.
The Huron Carol was one of these, McKhool said. “I dug back into the archives and found the original lyrics in 1600 written by Jean de Brébeuf when he was living with the Huron-Wendat people.”
McKhool tracked down a university professor who translated the lyrics and “I was looking at them and thinking ‘These don’t look like the lyrics I learned growing up in Ottawa in elementary school.”
He did some more research and discovered that there was a rewrite of the words about 100 years ago.
“People love that song. It is a very Canadian sounding song. It’s considered Canada’s first Christmas hymn. At the time, the person rewrote it to make it more contemporary. It has very r0manticized images of Indigenous people which fit with the aesthetics of the time but today seems quaint.
“I wouldn’t deny that, even with the original lyrics, it’s a problematic song. I think that taken in context and balance, however, it’s, at least, interesting.”
On the album, the Sultans “took the song well over the top and recorded it with the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra to give it insane amount of richness and beauty.”
As well the Ojibwe performer Crystal Shawanda, who is from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, sings it on the CD.
“This is an interesting album for us because there are a lot of singers on the project,” McKhool said. “People know us as an instrumental band, but this CD has 10 plus songs sung on the record.”
Another song that evolved in surprising ways was what the Sultans call Turkish Greensleeves.
“We worked with a Turkish string group called Gundem Yayli Grubu. This is a family band and they play in a string style that is unlike anything else. I had learned of them through a friend in Canada who now lives in Istanbul.
“We sent them a track attached to a Facebook message. They picked it up, recorded their parts and shipped it back. It sounds so amazing that now we want to record an album with them.”
The Sultans have recorded with the 80 year old Paddy Moloney before.
“There is something about his sound. You know when you hear a traditional player, you can hear one note and you know it’s the real thing.”
“I don’t know why (Paddy) keeps playing with us, but it’s just great to carry on that relationship.
“We sent the musical files over. He has an engineer he trusts in Ireland and he recorded his parts and shipped them back to us. It’s not a festively titled tune, but it is pretty.”
McKhool’s vision for the record was built on a dream list of collaborators.
“I said to the guys this would be a different kind of project. It didn’t matter how completely absurd the name was. And we started reaching out through the artists’ management or through musician networks. We worked all our channels.
“Sometimes getting through the management is the hardest thing. If you meet a musician at a party say and tell them what you are doing and they’ll usually say yes.” But going through management can be frustrating.
“We had been emailing one person for so long and the management kept writing back and saying they hadn’t brought it up yet.
“After about two years I just switched the tone of the email and made it sound like the artist had already agreed to do it and they kind of fell for it.”
In the Ottawa concert, the Sultans will play a lot of the record, along with some classic Sultans’ tunes. Accompanying them are two well-known singers with roots here — Rebecca Campbell and Kellylee Evans.
“We call Rebecca our musical Swiss Army knife. She can sing any song, any style. It’s quite uncanny.”
She has appeared on several of McKhool’s projects. On the Christmas Caravan CD, among other things, she sings a version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
It’s another surprise in the process, McKhool said.
“At the end of a recording session I asked her to put down a ghost track of Hallelujah, just to send to another artist. She sang it and we completely lost it. It was an incredible version.”
It’s not an understatement to call this holiday album a ridiculously big project.
The Sultans have worked with guest artists before and they have recorded with an orchestra before. And they have had a co-creator before in the person of the sitarist Anwar Kurshid on the record Subcontinental Drift.
But this latest record is the most complicated because it has an orchestra, a “million special guests, and it has co-writes on it.”
There were a lot of moving parts and some of the guest artists didn’t join the project until the 11th hour.
“A whole bunch of guests confirmed at the last minute and that took the album from 12 songs to 18,” McKhool said.
Some holiday albums seem to be tossed off. Not this one.
“Everything I do, I do with a fair amount of conviction and pride and maybe a little bit of obsessive-compuslive behaviour. I really want to make great art. There is no time to waste dialling it in. Why do anything unless you are going to make it absurd and exceptional, otherwise there is so much noise out there.”
His wife is a regular purchaser of Christmas albums, McKhool said.
“I think every year when the new record comes home that that’s good, but I wondered why does all the music you hear at Christmas sound the same.
“This album was really an opportunity to create something new and bring some life and energy to some of these songs. In some cases we were ripping them right back to the studs to find the germ of the song.”
The tour, including the show in Ottawa is also an opportunity to help with the refugee crisis that is shaking the world. The band is helping raise funds for the United Nations refugee agency in Canada.
When you are travelling in a caravan these days that help really matters.
The Sultans of String are in the NAC Studio on Dec. 18. The show is sold out.