Review: ‘Sultans of String’ at AMP at Strathmore

The Sultans of String delight and excite. This is World Music as you’ve never heard it before. The music is, quite simply, a soul satisfying mash-up of European gypsy, classical, punjabi, jazz, and blues, 70s and 80s rock, salsa, and rhumba. It shouldn’t work; it does. The group, based in Ontario, has hit #1 on world/jazz charts in North America and received a Sirius XM Award. Violinist Chris McKhool was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. The list of  nominations and awards goes on and on.

Founders Chris McKhool (violin/fiddle) and Kevin Laliberte (guitar) were joined at AMP by Strathmore by their frequent collaborator Anwar Khurshid (sitar). Almost every piece was a stand-alone wonder; the combination is breathtaking.

The evening began appropriately with “Enter the Gate,” drawing one into their magical world through a de-stressing archway and making one curious about what is on the other side. Each piece had a story behind it. Both Ireland and Pakistan claim the origins of instrumental “Neil Gow’s Lament/Rakes of Mallow.” The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle during the period of English rule in South Asia.

Sultans of String. Photo courtesy of AMP at Strathmore.

Sultans of String. Photo courtesy of AMP at Strathmore. Photo by Kevin Kelly.

A Bollywood style “Blowing in the Wind” sing-along was worth the price of admission as was “Ho Jamalo,” sung in Shindi, and loosely interpreted as ‘beautiful country where people are respected; I am so fortunate to live here.’ Anwar Khurshid’s voice and hand movements further enhanced the  feeling of the piece.

Two more songs had very interesting back stories. “Road to Kfarrmishki” allows Chris McKhool to tell of his Lebanese, not Irish, roots. The instrumental reflects the story of McKhool accompanying his 80-year-old father back to his village. After five minutes, the two ran into a close relative whom they have never met. Every five minutes, a similar meeting occurs. Kevin’s guitar playing was showcased. He coaxed out amazing sounds as his fingers flew up and down the neck. In addition to his talent, the secret seems to be that his guitar is an acoustic electric nylon string carbon fiber wonder with the keyhole pointing up.

“Luna” finds its roots in a native Canadian story. When a chief dies, he comes back as a whale. Four days after a prominent chief passes, a whale appears near the village and accompanies their outrigger canoes up and down the coast. Through the use of amazing bow and guitar techniques and liberal application of the wah-wah pedal, one can actually hear the tones and emotions of the whale’s song.

Sultans of String swing through the DC metro area every 18-24 months. If, after hearing their songs, you cannot wait that long, they have multiple CDs for purchase on their website.

Running Time: One hour forty-five minutes, with one intermission.

Sultans of String played for one night only at AMP by Strathmore – 11810 Grand Park Boulevard,in North Bethesda, MD. For upcoming events, go to their website.

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