There’s something essentially Canadian about the Sultans of Strings’ Subcontinental Drift, with its swirl of influences from Cuba, France, India, Ireland, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Spain. Based in Toronto, the band has been around for eight years, led by Chris McKhool (six-string violin) and Kevin Laliberté (nylon- and steel-string guitar), who co-write much of the quintet’s original material. Over time, they’ve grown increasingly ambitious, especially on 2014’s Symphony, and now, with the addition of Anwar Khurshid (sitar), they’ve transformed themselves again, expanding their reach to create a joyful mix of East and West. You can hear it in an unlikely cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” sung in English and Urdu, but rooted in Afro-Indo-Caribbean rhythms by Drew Birston (bass), Rosendo “Chendy” León (percussion), and Eddie Paton (nylon-string guitar). You can hear it in the trad-fiddle tune “The Rakes of Mallow,” which was brought from Ireland to India two centuries ago, when it was adapted into a prayer to the Hindi goddess Meenakshi. You can hear it in Laliberté-McKhool tunes like “A Place to Call Home” and “A Heart Does What It Does,” which bring a subcontinental sensibility to North American singer-songwriting, with each side making the other stronger.
Sultans of String succeeds brilliantly, thinking like classical musicians and listening like jazzmen. It helps that they have two conservatory-trained guitarists to keep driving the rhythm, and with support from arts councils, in Ontario and Toronto, they’ve found the freedom to put all these worlds together, performing with a spirit of playfulness, of openness, of warmth, that makes Subcontinental Drift such a beautiful surprise.