Sultans of String Combines World Music Canadian Style

Written By Juan Carlos Perez-Duthie
September 22, 2017 at 7:57 PM

With their fusion of flamenco elements, jazz riffs, Middle Eastern sounds, Cuban and other Latin American rhythms, the Sultans of String seem to know how to strike the right chord. On Friday, August 8, South Florida audiences will have the opportunity to see why, as the Canadian Sultans make their Florida debut with a show at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center (SMDCAC), as part of its Cabaret Series. The next day, they will perform at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach.

“The quality and the multi-cultural style of the Sultans, the fact that they touch on Latin and Spanish rhythms and gypsy jazz, these are the types of things that we’ve been presenting in the Cabaret, and they represent the combination of all of those genres,” says Eric Fliss, SMDCAC’s managing director.

Physically representing multi-cultural backgrounds are the Sultans themselves, like cofounder and violinist, guitarist, composer and producer, Chris McKhool, of Lebanese and Egyptian ancestry (his last name derives from Makhoul). For the performances in South Florida he will be joined by the band’s other cofounder, Kevin Laliberté, on guitar, along with Drew Birston playing the bass.

McKhool dug into his roots to infuse an Arabic sound , while his first live taste of rumba flamenca came thanks to hearing Laliberté play it, hence the Spanish influence in the group, whose latest album, Symphony! (Sony/Red), was released last year. Birston, meanwhile, who came into the Sultans’ fold early on, contributes a pop and jazz sensibility .

The Sultans of String began in 2007 as the duo of McKhool and Laliberté. They are flexible in their roster and adaptable to situations, sometimes playing as a quartet with Canada-based Cuban percussionist Rosendo “Chendy” León, a musician in great demand who won’t be able to make it to the South Florida performances due to other artistic engagements.

“Because of their need for percussion, Chris first invited me to perform on one of their albums, without being officially in the band,” says León from Ottawa. “And because of the fusion that we created, they really liked the idea of me joining them” and developing their sound.

León, the 41-year-old son of a well-known percussionist in Cuba, has been in Canada since 1999. “I was also always open to the possibility of learning new rhythms, because that’s what the Sultans do.”

Another Cuban musician who has played with the Sultans is Alberto Suárez. For McKhool, both Chendy León and Suárez have enriched the group with their contributions. “We have a lot of Cuban musicians in Toronto, and they’re a very important part of our music scene,” says McKhool via phone from Toronto, where he lives. “Playing with Chendy and with Alberto has taught me a lot more about their music and about the rhythms of Latin America.”

When they are a quintet, the Sultans feature guitarist Eddie Paton. At times, they also perform with a Latin trumpet ensemble: three trumpets or trumpet, sax, and trombone, with different players each time. And they also relish their symphony shows, which feature anywhere from 35 to 75 players as they play with classical orchestras. “We’re modular, like Ikea,” says the 45-year-old McKhool.

Four years ago, industry veteran Dave Wilkes went from being a fan of the group to becoming their international road manager. Wilkes, an American artistic representative, music executive and producer, saw in the Sultans of String that “it” factor that he had recognized in other performers he had either discovered, managed, or worked with since the 1960s. Performers such as Barry Manilow, Emmy Lou Harris, and Jerry Jeff Walker, to name a few.

“I don’t like boundaries in music. I don’t like anything that puts anyone into a box,” says Wilkes from his home in Plantation, Florida. “And these guys do great music. That’s my thing: always go with great music.”

This entails winning the public over with charisma, skill, and talent, qualities that the right media exposure and publicity can enhance, but cannot be a substitute for. “One of the greatest thrills in the entertainment world is when a customer goes into a club and sees an act that he did not know about, and it moves him,” says Wilkes, who once managed New York’s legendary The Bitter End nightclub.

SMDCAC’s Fliss remembers that he first heard of the Sultans of String half a year ago, thanks to Arts Garage in Delray; he then entered into a partnership with that other artistic hub to bring the group to south Florida.

“Miami is a tough town to get people to tour if you don’t have any connectors to bring them down. It’s not like you’re in North Carolina, where you can kind of pass through on your way to D.C. or Pennsylvania,” explains Fliss. “I would say, almost 60 percent of the artists that we present at the center, if not more, have never performed in Miami.”

That includes the Sultans, although McKhool has some fun memories of visiting: “When I was a kid, I grew up in Ottawa, and we used to pile into a VW van, the three kids and their parents, and drive all the way down to Florida, like a 36-hour drive, and hang out for a week and drive back up.”


WHAT: Sultans of String

WHEN: Friday. Aug. 8 at 8:30 p.m.

WHERE: South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211 St., Cutler Bay.

Tickets: $25 in advance, $30 day of show. Info: 786-573-5300;

This article also appears in the Miami Herald.

They will also perform on Saturday, Aug. 9, at Arts Garage, 180 N.E. First St., Delray Beach, 8:00 p.m. Tickets start at $25; 561-450-6357;

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