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.
South Florida audiences will have the opportunity to see why on Friday, 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. (They will perform at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach on Saturday.)
“The quality and the multicultural 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 multicultural backgrounds are the Sultans themselves. Co-founder and violinist, guitarist, composer and producer Chris McKhool is of Lebanese and Egyptian ancestry (his last name derives from Makhoul). For the South Florida shows he will be joined by the band’s other co-founder, Kevin Laliberté, on guitar, and Drew Birston on bass. (The group’s latest album, Symphony! (Sony/Red), was released last year.)
McKhool dug into his roots for the Sultans’ Arabic sound. He got his first live taste of rumba flamenca from Laliberté, who brings a Spanish influence. The Sultans of String began in 2007 as the duo of McKhool and Laliberté. Birston, who adds a pop and jazz sensibility, joined the group early on. They are flexible in their roster and adaptable to situations, sometimes playing as a quartet with Canada-based Cuban percussionist Rosendo “Chendy” León, who won’t be able to make it to the South Florida performances due to other engagements.
“Because of their need for percussion, Chris first invited me to perform on one of their albums, without being officially in the band,” León says from Ottawa. “And because of the fusion that we created, they really liked the idea of me joining them” and developing their sound.
León, 41, the son of a well-known percussionist in Cuba, has lived 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. Both Suárez and Leon have enriched the group with their contributions, McKhool says from his home in Toronto. “We have a lot of Cuban musicians in Toronto, and they’re a very important part of our music scene,” McKhool says. “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 brass 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 McKhool, 45.
They are managed by music industry veteran Dave Wilkes, a Plantation resident who also has worked with stars such as Barry Manilow, Emmy Lou Harris and Jerry Jeff Walker. Four years ago Wilkes went from being a fan of the group to their international road manager.
“I don’t like boundaries in music. I don’t like anything that puts anyone into a box,” Wilkes says. “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. “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.
Fliss first heard of the Sultans half a year ago through the Arts Garage in Delray, and 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,” Fliss says. “It’s not like you’re in North Carolina, where you can kind of pass through on your way to D.C. or Pennsylvania. 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.”