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Sultans Of String Go Walking Through The Fire With All-Star Collaborators

The global roots group's ambitious new collaborative album arrives in September.

What do Crystal Shawanda, Leela Gilday, the Northern Cree powwow group, a dozen other Indigenous artists and roots band Sultans Of String have in common? They have all come together to create the Sultans’ new album Walking Through The Fire.

Sparked by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action and Final Report that urges Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to work together, this album — and an accompanying series of performances — offers powerful collaborations between the roots group and First Nations, Métis, and Inuit artists from across Turtle Island. Walking Through The Fire will be released on Sept. 15, followed by a concert tour launching on Sept. 28 — all leading up to the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30.

Fire can be destructive, as we have seen with the unprecedented forest fires still burning in Canada. But what we see right afterward is interesting, as collaborating Indigenous art director Mark Rutledge explains, referencing the title and cover art of Walking Through The Fire. “You’ll see the burnt-out husks of trees and the ash and the charcoal on the landscape. But fireweed is the first plant after a forest fire that emerges, and you’ll see rivers and fields of magenta within the barren landscape, and those nutrients are going back into the soil for the next generation of trees and flowers and regrowth.”

There is fear instilled within the very notion of fire because it can be so destructive, not just to the landscape, but to the lives of people. But what lies beyond fear that holds people back from achieving what they want to achieve? “The other side of fear is growth and potential with collaboration between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people,” Mark continues. “When we drop the word reconciliation on people, there’s a large group of people who don’t understand what that means. And when you don’t understand something, you are fearful of it. But if we go through the same experience together, we walk through that fire together, and we come out together on the other end and have that unified experience together, that’s the power in this album.”

Together these artists are making a safe, creative space where new connections can be dreamed of — not in the Western way of thinking and problematizing — but instead a deeper sharing and understanding, with music being the common ground to help cultures connect and understand each other. “We are opening doors for each other, as Indigenous peoples, as settler peoples. This project is about creating connections and spaces to learn from each other,” explains collaborator Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, violist with Métis Fiddler Quartet.

Nine-time Grammy-nominated Northern Cree and community organizers in Kettle and Stony Point welcomed Sultans Of String to their annual powwow for one of these collaborations. Steve Wood, drummer and singer, explains, “When you’re collaborating with mainstream music, it shows that we can work together to bring out the very best in who we are as human beings, and we can bring out something very beautiful.”

A central theme running through Walking Through The Fire is the need for the whole truth of Residential Schools and the Indigenous experience to be told long before reconciliation can possibly take place. Grammy-nominated Elder and poet Dr. Duke Redbird, who in many ways provided the initial inspiration for this project, explains, “The place that we have to start is with truth. Reconciliation will come sometime way in the future, perhaps, but right now, truth is where we need to begin the journey with each other.”

Sultans violinist Chris McKhool, who was recently awarded the Dr. Duke Redbird Lifetime Achievement Award by Redbird and JAYU Arts for Human Rights for working to amplify these truths through collaborations, says, “This country has a history that has been ignored, distorted, twisted to suit colonialist goals of destroying a people. We are so fortunate for the opportunity to work with Indigenous artists, sharing their stories, their experiences, and their lives with us, so we can continue our work of learning about the history of residential schools, genocide, and intergenerational impacts of colonization. Music has a special capacity for healing, connecting, and expressing truth.”

McKhool leads the Juno-nominated, CFMA-winning band, who recorded the bed tracks at Jukasa Studios, an Indigenous-owned world-class recording facility on the Six Nations reserve south of Hamilton. “We were so fortunate to be able to work at Jukasa, as well as consult with exceptional Indigenous artists on this project,” says McKhool. “We were lucky to be able to work with Indigenous designer Mark Rutledge and Indigenous filmmakers and videographers Eliza Knockwood and Marc Merilainen, working with our usual team, to come up with a look and feel for the album.”

The Hon. Murray Sinclair, former chair of the TRC, said, “The very fact that you’re doing this tells me that you believe in the validity of our language, you believe in the validity of our art and our music, and that you want to help to bring it out. And that’s really what’s important: for people to have faith that we can do this.” Sinclair also spoke about the importance of using Indigenous languages so these do not become lost. The recording and concert features lyrics in Dene, Inuktitut, Sm’algyax, Cree, and Michif.

Sultans Of String is a fiercely independent band that has always tried to lift up those around them and has exposed many of their collaborators and special guests to new audiences at their shows. They have performed at JunoFest, N.Y.C.’s legendary Birdland Jazz Club, Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, and London’s Trafalgar Square. Led by Queen’s Diamond Jubilee recipient McKhool, they have collaborated with orchestras across North America, played live on mutipile radio stations, and recorded and performed with such diverse luminaries as Paddy Moloney & The Chieftains, Sweet Honey in The Rock, Richard Bona, Alex Cuba, Ruben Blades, Benoit Bourque and Béla Fleck. Their work during the pandemic on The Refuge Project amplified the voices of new immigrants and refugees, earning them CFMAs and Best Musical Film at the Cannes World Film Festival.

Says Raven Kanatakta of Digging Roots: “We have to move beyond allyship, and we have to move into relationships of being co-conspirators, get down into the dirt and start working together and start moving forward. We’re all equals here, and we all need to communicate as equals. We actually need Canadians to step up and take that first move.”

Walking Through The Fire Track List

1 | A Beautiful Darkness ft. Marc Meriläinen / Nadjiwan (Ojibwe)
2 | The Rez ft. Crystal Shawanda (Ojibwe Potawatomi)
3 | Take Off The Crown ft. Raven Kanatakta of Digging Roots (Anishinaabe Algonquin /
Onkwehón:we Mohawk)
4 | Kǫ́ ft. Leela Gilday (Dene) & Leanne Taneton (Dene)
5 | Nîmihito (Dance) ft. Northern Cree (Cree)
6 | Lost And Found ft. Shannon Thunderbird & Kate Dickson (Ts’msyen)
7 | Black Winged Raven ft. Shannon Thunderbird (Ts’msyen)
8 | Our Mother The Earth ft. Dr. Duke Redbird (Chippewa/Anishinaabe)
9 | Sweet Alberta ft. The North Sound (w/ Forrest Eaglespeaker – Blackfoot)
10 | Humma ft. Kendra Tagoona & Tracy Sarazin (Inuit)
11 | Highway Of Tears ft. Don Ross (Mi’kmaw) & M.J. Dandeneau (Métis)
12 | Chanson De Riel ft. Métis Fiddler Quartet (Métis)
13 | Tkaronto Reel ft. Métis Fiddler Quartet (Métis)
14 | Quviasuliqpunga ft. Kendra Tagoona & Tracy Sarazin (Inuit)

Sultans Of String Tour Dates

With Leela Gilday, The North Sound, Don Ross, Shannon Thunderbird, Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, Marc Meriläinen (Nadjiwan), and a multimedia extravaganza including Northern Cree, Kendra Tagoona, Tracey Sarazin, Duke Redbird and more.

Sept. 28 – Markham Flato Markham Theatre
Sept. 29 – Stratford Stratford Symphony
Sept. 30 – St Catharines Niagara Symphony
Oct. 1 – St Catharines Niagara Symphony
Oct. 2 – St Catharines FirstOntario PAC Education show
Oct. 3 – Brantford Brantford Symphony
Oct. 4 – Lindsay Flato Academy Theatre

With Shannon Thunderbird, Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, Marc Meriläinen (Nadjiwan), and a multimedia extravaganza including Northern Cree, Kendra Tagoona, Tracey Sarazin, Duke Redbird and more.

Oct. 10 – Sudbury Café Heritage (Education & evening shows)
Oct. 11 – North Bay Capital Centre
Oct. 12 – Timmins Timmins Museum, O’Gorman HS
Oct. 13 – Geraldton Geraldton Concert Series
Oct. 14 – Thunder Bay Sleeping Giant Folk Music Society
Oct. 15 – Dryden Dryden Entertainment Series
Oct. 16 – Sioux Lookout Sioux Hudson Entertainment Series
Oct. 17 – Red Lake Red Lake Entertainment Series
Oct. 18 – Kenora Lake of the Woods Concert Group
Oct. 19 – Fort Frances Tour de Fort Entertainment Series
Oct. 22 – Burlington Burlington PAC
Oct. 23 – Burlington Burlington PAC (Education show)
Nov. 12 – Walkerton Victoria Jubilee Hall

Jan. 19 – Ottawa Centerpointe Theatre
Jan. 23 – Kingston Kingston Grand Theatre (Education & evening shows)
Jan. 25 – Brampton Rose Theatre (Education & evening shows)
Jan. 30 & 31 – Guelph River Run Centre (Education show)
Feb. 1 – Guelph River Run Centre (Education & evening shows)
March 2 & 3 – Winnipeg – Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
April 15 & 16 – Markham Flato Markham Theatre (Education show)

Find tickets for all shows HERE, pre-save Walking Through The Fire HERE, order a CD HERE, watch Sultans Of String’s latest videos above, sample more from the group below, and get fired up on their website, Twitter and Facebook.


Photo by Kevin Kelly.