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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Sultans of String, above, Chris McKhool, left, and Kevin Laliberté, right, 8 p.m. Jan. 10, Godfrey Daniels, 7 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Sultans of String, above, Chris McKhool, left, and Kevin Laliberté, right, 8 p.m. Jan. 10, Godfrey Daniels, 7 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem

Instrumental World

Wednesday, January 9, 2013 by DEB BOYLAN Special to The Press in Focus

Canada's Sultans of String excited about Godfrey Daniels' performance

The Sultans of String are set to descend upon Bethlehem from the Great White North.

The Sultans of String, consisting of six-string violinist Chris McKhool and acoustic guitarist Kevin Laliberté, are hitting the road on a several month-long tour promoting their latest CD, "Move."

The Sultans begin their stop in Bethlehem Jan. 10 by performing a live radio session on Lehigh Valley Community Public Radio station WDIY, 88.1 FM, at 3 p.m. followed by an 8 p.m. show at celebrated folk coffeehouse Godfrey Daniels, 7 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem.

The performance at Godfrey's is a first for the popular duo.

"We're really excited to be performing there. In Canada, Godfrey Daniels is considered a legendary folk spot," says McKhool during a recent phone interview. "It's really exciting to be there for the very first time."

When asked how Sultans of String, a 2010 Juno-nominated world music duo, came to be booked at Godfrey Daniels, McKhool couldn't quite recall with 100 percent certainty, but he believes that it was Godfrey's that found the duo rather than the other way around. "We've done a bunch of showcasing in the U.S.," says McKhool.

"That's where you perform and people from different venues watch you and then they decide if they think you are a good fit for their spot. Ramona [LaBarre, Godrey's Managing Director] from the club [Godfrey Daniels] may have seen us at an event called NERFA [Northeast Regional Folk Alliance], which is a small offshoot of Folk Alliance. It's a place where musicians from all over North America come and showcase and I suspect that Ramona saw us there."

Although Sultans of String, which are named after the Dire Straits' hit song, "Sultans of Swing," have performed at times with additional musicians and a symphony orchestra, McKhool and Laliberté remain the heart, soul and the principle songwriters and founding members of the group.

"We play all kinds of different formats to fit any kind of venue or music series," says McKhool. "The beautiful thing about just Kevin and I performing is that there's a real synergy between us when we play. We improvise a lot. There's a lot of freedom in just performing as a duo."

The duo's music is instrumental, but McKhool and Laliberté enjoy interaction with the audience and sharing the stories behind the songs.

"We wrote the songs and we get to tell all the stories; about Luna the whale from the West Coast and Sable Island where the horses run free on the East Coast, and the arctic and all the people we meet in all our travels, that becomes quite a bit of the show as well," McKhool explains.

"One of the things that I learned early on is that even though we play instrumental music, each song is also a story and it's through the storytelling that you can really bring people in to your world. It is almost like taking them on an armchair tour around the world."

Most of the compositions performed on the road are all-original, although the duo enjoys having fun with popular songs, injecting their world music flair in the process. "We do a fun rumba-flamenca version of 'Pinball Wizard' and 'Heart of Gold' sometimes."

Sultans of String are incredibly popular in their home country of Canada, having received many awards and accolades including past Juno (the Canadian equivalent to the Grammy) nominations and multiple awards on the festival circuit.

When they perform in the United States they find the fans to be equally passionate as their Canadian counterparts.

"The U.S. is such a wonderful place to tour because the audiences are really very engaged, very vocal, and very enthusiastic. I guess we're growing our audiences all the time there. Everywhere that we play, we get invited back, which is a wonderful feeling."

The duo also receives radio airplay in the United States via folk radio, community radio stations and NPR.

"Last January, we were the No. 1 Canadian played band on community radio," says McKhool. "It is folk music, so we are never going to be as big as the stuff you hear on commercial radio, but then again it's not about becoming huge stars. It's about connecting with people and sharing our stories. So, we feel lucky anytime we can do that."

Some of McKhool's musical influences come from music he was surrounded by at home growing up.

"They're [musical influences] are pretty much all over the map," he explains. "McKhool is actually [a] Lebanese [name] and some of the music that I heard growing up, the recordings in my parents' LP library were world music-influenced records," he says.

"Ravi Shankar, rest his soul I saw him perform and heard him on recordings when I was growing up and that was a really good introduction to world music. I travel all around the world so wherever I go I always try and grab a couple of music lessons and enjoy the local music.

"In Canada, I grew up on everything from Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen the great Canadian singer-songwriters as well as prog rock everything from Yes, Genesis, U2 all kinds of bands," he says.

"A lot of our music even though it's world music we have kind of a pop sensibility about the tunes. They develop in the same way. They're not like Ravi Shankar tunes that last the entire length of a record side."

McKhool first paired up with Kevin Laliberté in 2007 while he [McKhool] was performing in a jazz quartet in Toronto.

"The guitar player called in sick and he sent Kevin in instead and when I heard Kevin warming up he was playing a rumba-flamenca rhythm and I was like, 'That sounds amazing; what is that?' and he said, 'That's a rumba-flamenca. Everything sounds better when you play it as a rumba-flamenca.'"

Their first performance as a duo was in a small basement club where they honed their improvisational skills.

"We only knew half a dozen songs together, so we would just make up songs and we'd do that every week and I'd record all those sessions, listen to them, and get great musical ideas from them."

This spontaneous free-form approach was the basis of the group's first two recordings, 2007's "Luna" and 2009's "Yalla Yalla!"

"We still do some of that," says McKhool. "When we are on a gig and it's more of a background music gig and no one's really listening, we'll just make some stuff up which is fun for us and our musical spirit and sometime's we get some new songs out of it."

In addition to the duo's latest recording, "Move," they will have copies of their other two CDs available for purchase and will also be on hand following the show to meet fans and sign copies of the recordings.

"'Move' is our newest CD and we are pretty pleased with it. Like our other recordings, we do have a lot of different styles on there, everything from rumba-flamenca to Cuban rhythms, gypsy jazz, Arabic rhythms, East Coast Celtic, Brazilian rhythms. We'll be demonstrating a lot of that in our show at Godfrey Daniels."