By Dan Walton
Worlds had to collide in order for the Sultans of String to bring together Subcontinental Drift, the band’s latest album.
In the beginning, the Sultans of String crafted a unique brand by combining the sounds of the flamenco guitar and bass, which are steered by violinist Chris McKhool – the band leader.
The group’s musical styles have been adopted from many cultures around the world – Gypsy-jazz, Arabic, Cuban, and South Asian rhythms – though songs are mostly anchored in the Celtic format.
“We can take in influence from any string tradition and figure out how to make it work,” said McKhool. “Any time you play with a different special guest it brings out a different side of you.”
Most recently, the Sultans teamed up with sitar player Anwar Khurshid. Many people will be familiar with his sitar recordings which were featured in the film Life of Pi.
Khurshid was already a professional sitar player when he immigrated to Toronto in 1989. However, there was a ton of room for creative growth when he arrived because in his native land of Pakistan, creative expression is somewhat taboo.
“It’s not considered a cool thing to do,” he said. “Some people consider it haram, which means non kosher. And there is an association of sinfulness and sinful acts associated with music.”
From Khurshid’s point of view, there wasn’t much value in conforming to holy superstitions, so now he sins in Canada.
“I felt I couldn’t express myself completely while I was there. Now I’m a professional musician playing an Eastern instrument in a Western community.”
The musical notes that get produced through a guitar, bass and violin are relatively compatible, whereas the fretboard on a sitar uses scales that don’t easily line up with Western instruments.
“It’s totally unconventional,” he says. “The tuning is quite different and the playing style is not the same. But you feel the musicality of other musicians as well. It’s like rowing in a boat together.”
Beyond the technical difficulties of blending a sitar with traditional Western instruments, Khurshid believes colonial history plays a big role.
“The West has been constrained by a little bit of ego in the sense that they were the dominant culture over the last few centuries, so why would they take an instrument or a form of music from a culture that has been subjugated and conquered?”
It’s easy to have the attitude that the conquered culture should adopt the music, philosophy, spirituality, culture and art of the dominant people, he said.
But Khurshid is breaking down those artistic barriers and said it’s been wonderful to be able to collaborate with so many different kinds of musicians in Canada.
The idea for Khurshid to immigrate to this way came to him through testimony from his brother.
“I liked what my brother had become and what Canada had done to him. I liked what he had become. He became more liberal. After returning, he didn’t care what faith you believe in as long as you don’t hurt others … he used to get into trouble; fights and stuff. That was a very visible change that I’ve noticed and felt.”
Since the Sultans of String expanded their instrumental arsenal to include the sitar, Khurshid harnessed his talent by helping with the group’s latest album, Subcontinental Drift.
“The album has a message of hope. It does convey a feeling of optimism and joy to a certain extent. So if you’re not feeling that great and were to put it on, it would have an effect on you which would be uplifting.”
Journey to Freedom, from the album, was co-written by Khurshid. He said he was aiming to write a song that celebrates the feelings of freedom.
“The kind of sounds that make you think of the joy of rebirth; emerging out of darkness and into the freshness of spring. Almost like being free again.”
Audiences who have never experienced a performance with a sitar are often surprised to find out how big the instrument is, McKhool said. And Khurshid plays his instrument as you might envision a sitar player to be posed, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
“It looks a little like he’s riding a magic carpet,” McKhool said.
The Sultans of String take Frank Venables Theatre on April 2.