Sultans of String come to Tour de Fort with message of truth and reconciliation

By Allan Bradbury
Staff Writer

With their new album Walking Through the Fire, Sultans of String sought to build partnerships with indigenous artists in an effort to spur on reconciliation.

Sultans of String is a three-time Juno nominated band with music that crosses the world over. Their music is inspired by Celtic, Flamenco, Arabic, Cuban and South Asian sounds and this album has influences from Indigenous Canadian styles of music as well.

Walking Through the Fire includes collaborations with Crystal Shawanda, Raven Kanatakta, Leela Gilday, Northern Cree, Shannon Thunderbird and many more indigenous artists.

Walking Through the Fire came about after the band collaborated with Ojibwe Elder, Dr. Duke Redbird. It was a conversation with Redbird that sparked the idea for this album, according to violinist Chris McKhool.

Sultans of String, made up of bassist Drew Birston, left, violinist Chris McKhool, guitarist Kevin Laliberté and Cuban percussionist Rosendo Chendy Leon, along with a rotating ensemble of guest artists, will take to the Townshend Theatre stage on Thursday, October 19, 2023. – Submitted photo

“On our last project, called the refuge project, we were collaborating with a bunch of artists that have come to Canada as new immigrants and refugees. But one of those songs was with Ojibwe elder, Dr. Duke Redbird almost like a land acknowledgement to have his poetry set to music as the first song on the album,” McKhool said. “At the end of that project Duke said to me, ‘So Chris what are you going to do? When are you going to for indigenous issues what you’ve done for refugees and immigrants?’ That was a very direct call to action. I really love and respect Duke and I was like ‘ok, let’s figure out how to make that happen.’”

Redbird was one of many indigenous advisors that helped on the project as they reached out to other indigenous artists they were familiar with and then used those connections to find more artists.

Marc Meriläinen is an indigenous musician who collaborated on the album spent time growing up in Thunder Bay and traces his roots back to the Chippewas of Nawash, Cape Croaker. Meriläinen says he has been working to get the conversation about indigenous issues out in his music for years.

“Over the past 30 years I have been involved with a First Nations rock project called Nadjiwan,” Meriläinen said. “I’ve been trying to spread the word about Indigenous issues & challenges through music. Music is easy to digest. I find that hitting people over the head with facts rarely works. But, if we can put that information into a catchy song then hopefully that inspires the listener to learn more about that topic.”

Meriläinen says he’d love to see more collaboration projects of this sort.

“I definitely would love to see more collaborations like this project,” he said. “Music is the ultimate force that crosses all barriers and borders. Music is what brings us together and how we can further build and nourish our communities. I see musicians as being the ‘healers’ of the world and it is our mission to promote that universal oneness.”

Meriläinen is also part of the touring show for Walking Through the Fire.

“My initial interest in this project was somewhat selfish as I get to play with amazing musicians night after night,” he said.

The live show features some of the collaborators in person with others being incorporated via video and audio recordings.

“We have live on stage, Marc (Meriläinen), Alyssa (Delbaere-Sawchuk), and David as collaborating indigenous artists,” McKhool said. Then we also have a multimedia component where we bring in Northern Cree on the big screen behind us, we’ve got Dr. Duke Redbird and our Inuit artists up on the screen as well and we perform along with them, so it’s pretty exciting.”

The show will feature all of the songs from the recorded album McKhool says.

“There are some more serious songs,” McKhool said. “Written from the point of hardship of what indigenous people have had to endure in this country and there are songs of celebration where we will have our audience clapping and singing along so it really is a diverse program of music.”

Overall McKhool hopes that everyone who comes takes something away from the show.

“I think what’s really important is that people learn a bit about the true history in this country, that history of residential schools, and colonization and, and the intergenerational effects of colonization, and the residential school system. There is not one indigenous person in this country who has not been affected by the residential school system,” McKhool said. We drew inspiration from the 94 calls to action in final report that calls for indigenous and non-indigenous artists to work together to show a path forward. I’m not a doctor or a lawyer, I’m a musician, this is what I can do, to try and move the needle in my own life. The results have been outstanding, I just can’t believe, you know, how much these artists have given themselves to be able to share these stories with the general public.”