Several years ago, a North Delta high school teacher presented Don Hlus with a lofty challenge: One up yourself.
Hlus, organizer of the Fraser Valley Acoustic Guitar Festival, had just finished hosting a successful show with some top tier artists, but he knew if the festival was to continue and grow, he needed to take Philip Ayers’ words to heart.
“Phil would come by shaking his head and say, ‘That’s amazing, where do you find these guys? What are you going to do next year?'” laughed Hlus, who is also chair of the music department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
“He’s been retired for well over 15 years now, but I still have his voice in the back of mind saying, ‘Well, what are you going to do next year?'”
Heading into his 21st annual guitar festival next month, Hlus has, admittedly, outdone himself again, this time bringing two high profile guitar duos to Langley.
On Saturday, Feb. 17, musicians David Sinclair, Keith Bennett, John Gilliat and Rossi Tzonkov will take the stage at KPU’s Langley campus for an evening of “very eclectic” music.
As part of the festival, which is hosted by KPU, these artists will first participate in workshops with high school and university music students, before playing an intimate public performance.
“I basically have three missions. One, obviously, is for the KPU music students to have an opportunity to learn from internationally renowned players, and then also to give perspective high school students the opportunity to see what’s possible,” explained Hlus.
“And then, of course, to give people in the community an opportunity to hear world class artists in their own backyard.”
Performing together will be Sinclair and Bennett, followed by Gilliat and Tzonkov.
Sinclair is the former guitarist for k.d. lang and Sarah McLachlan, and has performed with many other big names, including Michael Buble, Daniel Powter, Bachman Turner Overdrive and Bryan Adams. He’s toured across North America and Europe and has appeared on several TV shows, including Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Saturday Night Live, the Grammy Awards show and the Juno Awards show.
Bennett is one of the top rated harmonica players in the world, and an accomplished guitarist and singer. He has performed live with Supertramp, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and was Harmonica Man at Vancouver Canucks games for almost 10 years.
Gilliat, a Langley native, is a Rumba Flamenco and Latin jazz player. He has toured throughout North America and Japan and represented Canada at Japan’s 2005 Expo, performed at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and performed for former Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
youtube Gilliat Rossi
Vancouver’s Tzonkov specializes in Spanish guitar, Caribbean steel drum and vocals. He’s created his own “contemporary Caribbean fusion” by blending styles from Spanish Rumbas, Nuevo Flamenco, Brazilian jazz and Calypso.
“One of the things I strive for is to introduce different things, not only to the audiences we have coming out to the feature concerts, but also to the students here at the university as well as prospective high school students,” Hlus said.
BRIDGING A GAP
Hlus began the guitar festival after a number of high school teachers complained there was a gap in local music opportunities for guitar students. They would take their jazz bands to Idaho for a music festival, their choirs to Whistler and their concert bands to Vancouver, but there was nothing for guitar.
“After about the 10th time of hearing this, I kind of thought, ‘OK, I can host something,'” Hlus said.
In the last two decades, the festival has grown from 88 students to 300, with the concert portion selling out for the last five years in a row.
“One of the biggest challenges I’ve had, for several years, is a lot of people didn’t know about the artists I was bringing in, even though they were internationally acclaimed artists,” Hlus said.
“And there was a lot of suspicion. They would think, OK, if they are internationally renowned, why are they coming to Langley? The other part was, well, if they are coming to Langley they must not be that good … or if they were in Vancouver then you wouldn’t go into Vancouver to hear them because it was too far.”
But that seldom happens anymore.
One of Hlus’ favourite stories to tell — and perhaps, the first measure of the festival’s success — involves an elderly lady who approached him during intermission one year to explain how her friends dragged her to the show.
“She said, ‘You know, my friends brought me to the festival five or six years ago, and I have to confess, I didn’t want to come. I was thinking this is going to be sort of substandard or amateurish,'” Hlus recalled.
“And then she said, ‘That’s one of the best concerts I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I’ve come every year ever since. I have no idea who you are bringing, but it’s been fabulous.’
“And she just walked away. That’s kind of why I do this. Giving people an opportunity — whether they’re high school students or university students or people in the community — to hear some great music by world class artists. That’s been very satisfying.”
Advance tickets are $25 for adults ($35 at the door) or $20 for students/ seniors ($30 at the door). Purchase online at brownpapertickets.com or at all KPU Bookstores.
The feature concert begins at 7:30 p.m. at the KPU Langley auditorium, 20901 Langley Bypass.
For more information, visit www.kpu.ca.