In tune with the stars
Updated: 2012-03-02 07:58
By Mark Graham (China Daily)
As an official ambassador of UNICEF, Steve Barakatt says he is always touched when he sees children in difficult situations. [Provided to China Daily]
Canadian musician draws inspiration - and many fans - from China
China has played a significant role in the glittering career of the Canadian pianist-composer Steve Barakatt, the man who wrote and orchestrated the UNICEF anthem Lullaby, a monumental undertaking that involved 250 artists worldwide.
The singer chosen to open the song was Leon Lai, the Beijing-born singer who is a long-time Barakatt pal and professional collaborator. Lai and other Cantopop stars love Barakatt's melodic compositions and, over the years, have commissioned many songs from the Quebec City-based musical maestro.
A firm link with Hong Kong was established in 1995 when a CD he released, Audacity, impressed people in the local music industry who thought the work had a distinctly Asian vibe. The composer was commissioned to write songs for Kelly Chen, Daniel Chen and Lai; some years later, Barakatt nominated Lai to be the opening singer on the UNICEF anthem Lullaby.
Barakatt took his time on the project, to ensure that Lullaby would be a well-crafted piece of music that would endure and be played by future generations.
"I composed it and produced it and initiated the project following an idea from Mr Harry Belafonte," he says.
"He told me of the projects he had done when he was younger and he said 'You are young. Create an anthem for UNICEF'.
"It took a year to complete it, recording different parts in different parts of the world. There are 250 musicians and singers on the recording. It plays at many events worldwide.
"We even had it played on the space station."
Barakatt is an official ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations children's organization that aims to help alleviate the poverty and misery endured by the world's least-fortunate children. The role has even more relevance and resonance now Barakatt is the father of 3-year-old Victoria.
"The main role is to raise awareness: as artists and celebrities, we get the chance to reach a lot of people and bring attention to the situation of children around the world," he says.
"It is a link between donors and the children, to express the reality to corporate people and explain why they should give."
Music has been part of Barakatt's life from an early age. He released his first CD when just out of school, began writing commercial jingles for corporations as a teenager and, as an adult, developed a multi-pronged career that involves playing live concerts, producing music, marketing CDs and exploring the business opportunities that the digital-age has opened up.
"I would not say I am a businessman, but I am an entrepreneur. "For me, with music and business it is about building relationships, and being creative, and having goals to accomplish.
"Music is a process. When you write a song for a full orchestra, it starts with an idea. With business you are composing a symphony when you do a business plan ... you must have a very clear theme. There are so many things in common. When you do a sales pitch you need a great opening and a great closing, just like music. And with both, timing is everything.
"I started very young with music. My father, who was a schoolteacher, helped at the beginning; he and the family sacrificed a lot to buy me a piano and give me opportunities, but from an early age I was able to earn and make enough to survive."
Nowadays, Barakatt is on the road almost half the year, with regular visits to China, Japan and South Korea. Regular trips to China have also proved to be inspirational: a recent CD included the track Riding Around The Forbidden City, an ode to the world's largest palace.
When not zipping around Asia or other parts of the world, Barakatt lives in Quebec City, in a 200-year-old house equipped with a sophisticated recording studio. He embraced digital technology from the get-go, allowing him to import strands of music from anywhere in the world and mix them in the studio.
Applying other forms of modern technology to music is also a constant fascination. A long-term project is to design a totally new style of theater that will allow the traditional symphony to be performed in a high-tech environment.
"I think that everyone is touched by a symphony performance in a theatre, but it is like a museum - it is very formal.
"It could do with updating. Think of Cirque du Soleil which brought the traditional circus - without elephants and tigers - to a new level."
He already owes a big debt of gratitude to Cirque du Soleil, an organization indirectly responsible for him meeting his Russian wife Elena Grosheva, an Olympic silver-medal gymnast. After finishing her competitive career, Grosheva joined the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil and first set eyes on Barakatt during a chance coffee-shop encounter, the beginning of a romance that was to involve liaisons in many continents and countries.
They finally put down roots in Quebec City, where Victoria was born three years ago. For a touring musician, being separated from the family is a painful occupational hazard.
"It can be lonely, traveling and composing," says Barakatt, who is of Lebanese ancestry.
"After performing, you are with lots of people and feel energy and love and then you go to your room alone and it is 'bye bye'. And you miss your family a lot.
"When I start composing I can be anywhere. Pressure is a great inspiration to complete the writing process. I work better under a lot of pressure - it is the only way. All composers, even in the classical age, had deadlines to meet.
"I don't feel it is less artistic if someone wants something for a movie, or a campaign.
"Some people are afraid of becoming popular; they believe if it is popular it has less value. I think the opposite because we are communicators of emotions and to be understood is amazing. I don't know any composer who does not want to be appreciated. Who would say no to having millions of people appreciating your work?
"I try to keep a good level to what I do in terms of quality and use the best team and the best engineers," he says.
"I have had projects that have had less success like the symphony I composed For the Eternal Life but I respect the fact that I went and did the research."
The odd miss is more than compensated for by the number of hits. Barakatt's oeuvre is nothing if not broad, ranging from full-scale symphonies to jingles for car commercials and jaunty songs about the joys of drinking Chateau d'Yquem, inspired by a visit to the French vineyard.
A handsome income from a wide portfolio of projects allows a rather comfortable lifestyle; one indulgence is enjoying gourmet food and fine wine. But Barakatt ensures that he puts back as much as possible to society through UNICEF, whether it is visiting AIDS child victims in India, and later agitating for more financial support, or playing the piano at a gala fund-raising concert.
Becoming a UNICEF ambassador, he says, was a great honor sparked by a meeting with the organization's best-known contemporary figure, the former James Bond actor Roger Moore. He follows in the fund-raising footsteps of Audrey Hepburn, Danny Kaye, Peter Ustinov and Harry Belafonte.
"I was always touched when I saw children in difficult situations but when you have your own daughter you see them as if they are your own, the children of all adults in a way. To give them the opportunity to (gain) education, and health ... it is such a basic need and so important."