By Lauren La Rose
Sultans of String’s Chris McKhool admits it was “pretty devastating” to see dozens of shows cancelled for his band’s biggest-ever tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it wasn’t long before a moment of disappointment turned to one of tremendous opportunity—both to entertain audiences and raise funds and awareness for refugees.
“I started trying to figure out how to pivot to doing online shows,” McKhool recalled in a recent interview.
After spending time training himself on livestreaming software and how to integrate DSLR cameras with his MacBook, McKhool created a setup where he can operate five-camera shoots in a dedicated “Zoom Room” that he has been using to live-stream concerts to fans and shows for schools..
Sultans of String had originally planned to mark the release of their latest album “Refuge” in late spring. McKhool and his bandmates Kevin Laliberté, Eddie Paton, Drew Birston and Rosendo Chendy Leon will be taking their celebration online with a host of musical guests for a special hour-long concert.
“Sultans of String ZOOM Concert #3 – Refuge Edition” will take place on Nov. 27 at 8 p.m. EST. Tickets are $10, and one dollar for each concert ticket sold will support UNHCR.
Sultans of String are approaching their goal of raising $10,000 before the end of the year to support UNHCR in its efforts to help provide shelter and urgently needed humanitarian aid to millions of displaced people.
“I have this ability to play music and bring people together and feel like I should be doing something valuable with it, something that can change the needles somewhere for somebody, said McKhool.
“It’s not enough just to play music for me— it has to have a social meaning behind it.”
McKhool has previously used his platform as an artist to both entertain audiences and help support refugees—and UNHCR’s work— in the process.
For his 50th birthday, he decided to use the milestone occasion as an opportunity to fundraise for UNHCR which started with a kick-off concert and continued throughout their North American tour last year. Each of the shows during the multi-city tour had a booth with UNHCR related materials, as well as a donation box. And supporters also had the option of donating online through the band’s UNHCR fundraising page.
Chris McKool of Sultans of String. © Drew Birston
The five members of Sultans of String. © Kevin Kelly
Chris McKool of Sultans of String. © Jake Roels
The multimedia livestream will include live performances, guest appearances, spoken word, conversation and video exclusives by a host of musicians who collaborated with the Canadian quintet on “Refuge.” The lineup of talents includes former refugees: Canadian-Hungarian jazz pianist Robi Botos and Somali-American multimedia artist Ifrah Mansour. Tamar Ilana, Donné Roberts, Amir Amiri, Duke Redbird, Ahmed Moneka, Selcuk Suna, Béla Fleck are also among the artists taking part.
The video for the album’s title track featuring Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda opens with statistics of the people who have been displaced, including nearly 26 million refugees, followed by heartbreaking imagery of those uprooted from their homes.
“When I see the numbers, it really impacts me in a different way, and we think about (how) we integrate different information in so many different ways,” said McKhool.
“Music has this really incredible ability to kind of hit you in the gut to really hit you on an emotional level. We are all connected on the planet, whether we know it or not. When you see someone in pain or see someone enjoy, you feel those emotions with those people.”
Sultans of String describes the 13 songs on “Refuge” as speaking to “the challenges facing the world’s displaced peoples–their stories, their songs, their persistence and their humanity.”
“When we started working on this new album ‘Refuge,’ it was a very natural fit for us to say: ‘Well, with our past albums, we’ve always welcomed people from very different backgrounds to perform with us. But, hey, what about actually making a statement this time?’
“We’re really setting out to honour these fantastic performers that are all among us from around the globe. Some of them have come in as recent refugees or immigrants, and to showcase to our fans and to people… try and be a model to others of how we can work together.”