It’s difficult to make good music in any genre. It’s more difficult to make music that combines multiple styles from across the globe. And it’s even more difficult to do so in a way that looks relaxed and effortless. The Canadian group Sultans of String, whose latest CD is Move!, manages to do all three.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Chris McKhool, violinist and founder of the group. The interview covered a number of topics, including his roots and influences, the challenges of creating world music, and how music fits into his larger life. We began by talking about early influences in his music and a formative visit he took with his father back to Kfarmishki, the Lebanese Christian village where his grandfather grew up. McKhool pays tribute to that visit in the song “Road to Kfarmishki” on Move!.
"Once we were in the village, about five minutes in, we found my father's closest living cousin," McKhool recalled. "And then another five minutes after that we found the actual stone house where my grandfather grew up. It was a pretty amazing trip. It helped inspire some of that music. You'll hear a very common Arabic rhythm, a Saidi rhythm, in that song.
"My mother was born in Cairo," he continued. "She lived there until she was 18. And so actually she's more of a classical music buff than a world music buff. But certainly I was exposed to some great music through their record collection."
I'm curious. The name McKhool sounds Irish. Was it shortened from an Arabic name?
It was originally pronounced Makhool. My grandfather was a stowaway on a ship in 1903. Everyone at that time came through Montreal. Probably he checked in in Montreal and had a Scottish border guard who said, "What's your name, ?" And he said, "Makhool." And the guy probably said, "Ah, McKhool, that's an Irish name." Spelled it kind of funny.
Interesting. We have similar stories, people coming over to Ellis Island.
Exactly. Montreal was our Ellis Island at that time.
So, what kinds of music were you exposed to? Clearly, classical music. What else?
As I got older I heard some great fiddling music out of Ottawa Valley, where I grew up. It's very famous for that. And by the time I got to be in high school, I learned enough about music so I could teach myself how to play guitar and start writing my own songs; singing those songs within about a month. My older brother and I listened to a lot of prog rock and '60s rock—a lot of Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel. And my parents had some pretty cool records. That's when I first got exposed to world music. They had some interesting stuff, belly dance vinyl albums and one with Ravi Shankar.