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Masters of mixed musical genres

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The Sultans of String are, from left, Eddie Paton, Drew Birston, Chris McKhool, Kevin Laliberte and Chendy Leon.
When it comes to mixing genres, Toronto's Sultans of String are masters at what they do.
With healthy doses of flamenco, Gypsy-jazz, Arabic and Cuban rhythms and assorted other world influences, the Juno-nominated group has been wowing audiences with its own unique musical melting pot since 2004.
When it came time to invite some guests to appear on the Sultans' most recent record, Symphony!, founding member Chris McKhool wanted to get multi-instrumentalist Paddy Moloney of Irish traditional music legends The Chieftains on board.
But he wasn't sure how to approach inviting him to be part of the fun.
"We put the request out to him, asking if he'd be interested in performing on our record," said McKhool. "We didn't necessarily know how he'd to react to it, but his management said he was excited about it.
"It was something really different and it's always nice to have a superstar on your record."
Moloney played on the track, Sable Island on Symphony! and the relationship led to the Sultans being invited to open for the Chieftains in a Connecticut show.
It worked out even better than planned.
Comprised of McKhool on six-string violin, co-founding member Kevin Laliberte and Eddie Paton on nylon-string guitars, Drew Birston on bass and augmented by Cuban percussionist Alberto Suarez, they'll be back for a return appearance at the Creekside Theatre in Lake Country on
Feb. 4.
Since their last appearance in the Okanagan a couple of years ago, the band has been busy, keeping up with an extensive touring schedule and taking time out to record and release the innovative Symphony! It showcased collaborations between the group and several Canadian orchestras.
Although the practicalities of touring with a full symphony preclude that possibility, according to McKhool, they will be bringing a guest musician with them for the show here in the person of principal cellist Jeff Faragher of the Symphony of the Kootenays, which they will be coincidentally be playing two shows with in Cranbrook before their Okanagan concert.
"The whole Symphony! project was a few years in the making," said McKhool. "And part of the challenge was getting really fantastic (musical) parts.
"Our symphonic debut was a little over a year and a half ago, but it's really been picking up steam since we came out with an album."
Following their date here, the group will play shows the following Friday and Saturday in Kamloops with the symphony there.
"We performed at the Kaslo Jazz festival this past summer," he said.
"That was fantastic; what a great location and wonderful people and great music fans there.
"We also played in a cafe in town and that's where we actually had Jeff sit in with us on cello and we thought, 'That's so much fun. How can we extend this?'"
A quick online search reveals the Sultans of String have shows lined up for 2014 all across this country and quite a few south of the border in all formats and in venues ranging from fancy concert halls to intimate house concerts. To this day, McKhool and Laliberte sometimes even play as a duo, giving them the utmost in musical flexibility.
Classically trained, McKhool (originally Makhoul) grew up in a Lebanese-Egyptian musical household, where he absorbed the culture of his parents along with lessons learned from his violin teachers.
But if was after meeting guitarist Kevin Laliberte McKhool decided to put his various western and eastern influences together in the cross-cultural, high-energy stew that is Sultans of String. Drawing deeply from the Gypsy-jazz or Manouche music popularized in the '30s and '40s by legendary French guitarist Django Reinhardt, the Sultans of String have pulled diverse musical styles together into seamless whole.
The group's other album releases include their debut, Luna, in 2007, followed by 2009's Yalla Yalla, which garnered them a Juno nomination for Instrumental Album of the Year and MOVE, which came out in 2011.
Well travelled, the inquisitive McKhool has been on personal and musical explorations to everywhere from Indonesia to France, England, Cuba, Peru, the Himalayas and across Central America, adding to his musical lexicon along the way.
He's always had a special fondness for the Canadian north, a place he's visited several times as a sort of cultural and musical ambassador. He was recently awarded the Queen's Diamond Jubilee medal for his efforts.
"For me, music is an opportunity to build community and get people working toward a common cause."
But, awards and recognition aside, McKhool and the Sultans of String are all about bringing their individual talents and cultural contributions together as one, and having as much fun as possible with their audiences at the same time.
"We don't sit down with slide rules and calculators … we have fun musically," said McKhool. "It's like playing in a sandbox."

Who: Sultans of String live in concert
Where: Creekside Theatre, 10241 Bottom Wood Lake Rd. in Lake Country
When: Tuesday, Feb. 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $25 for adults, students and seniors $23, or a group of four, $84. Available in person at the District of Lake Country Municipal Hall box office 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, or by calling 250-766-9309.
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