A Musical Connection

Duo Saskia and Darrel follow their dreams and find inspiration for their music.

Just who is Zac Whyte?  Or perhaps the question is, buy more about what is Zac Whyte?  Most of us, even if we wear a number of hats, can be described with just a few words, or a simple sentence.  But not Zac Whyte.

Before going to interview him, I call up a special friend who I rely on as my source on what’s what and who’s who in the Comox Valley.

“He’s a totally awesome, amazingly inspiring guy,” she says.

“But what does he do, exactly?” I ask.

“All kinds of stuff; it’s all super cool.” Mmm, hmm.

An internet search leaves me with such a long list of describing words I’m wondering if I’ll be able to cover it all in one interview.  My notes read like this: social entrepreneur, videographer, communications expert, digital artist, public speaker, businessman, global studies educator, wedding photographer, fundraiser, business consultant, “Zactivist,” founder of the HEAL Project which supports the International Non-Governmental Organizations Childsoldier and WarChild, waste management employee, initiator of a hugging project, university student, father and “household god.”

Okey dokey.

Sometimes where lists and other forms of linear thought fail to communicate clearly, a story will do the trick.  Whyte recently told his story to a packed auditorium at Isfeld High School as one of a series of local TED (Technolody, Entertainment, Design) talks.  Watching the video of this event told me plenty about just who, and what, Zac Whyte is.

Taking long strides back and forth across an empty stage, Whyte starts at the beginning: he is four years old, lying in bed and frozen with fear, haunted by nightmare creatures that torment him in his sleep.  Every night he wakes, and huddles under the blanket, terrified, for an hour or more.  He calls his tormentors the shadow creatures.

At six years old, he strikes a bargain with the shadow creatures: they’ll leave him alone till the age of 33, and then they will come for him.

It works.  The shadow people back off—into his subconscious, where they remain, keeping their promise, holding their threat.

“That number, 33, sat in the back of my brain my entire life and has influenced hundreds and thousands of decisions,” he explains.

As he approached his 30th birthday, his subconscious begins to stir—the deadline is coming.  And his life (coincidentally? serendipitously?) offers a wake-up call.

“At the age of 29, I was working as a videographer and was sent out to the house of a couple who had adopted a 12-year old girl from Liberia named Kortu.  She had survived two civil wars and lost both her parents.  The couple was having trouble because Canada wouldn’t issue a visa.  They needed my help to tell her story,” says Whyte.

The couple described Kortu’s situation: “During the war rebel soldiers would circulate in her village shooting people at random, abducting children, forcing them to become child soldiers, slaves and bush wives.  To this day rape is prevalent, and preventable diseases just flare up and kill people.

“If we don’t get Kortu out, our daughter, the risk of her dying every single day goes up and up.”

Whyte continues:  “They went on for 15 minutes and after that I didn’t even hear a word.  Tears were rolling down my face.  I was devastated.  I told the story as best I could and then tried to forget the whole thing.

“Six months later I received a phone call: ‘Zac, your story was a big help.  We got Kortu out, and she arrived last night and she wants to meet you’”

His meeting with Kortu, sitting on her brand new bed sucking ice-cubes with her (she’d never seen them before and was fascinated), was profound.  “I was thinking, ‘Did my story really just save this girl’s life?’  What if I told more stories like this?  I need more of this.  In fact, I don’t need much more than this.  So what am I scared of?  I can do better.  So I did.  The following week I quit my job to become a full time social entrepreneur… or as my wife put it, ‘We’re poorer this week than last week.’”

A year later he had created an educational program that he took into local schools to raise awareness and engage the kids in raising money for schools in Africa.  He called the project Connecting to Kenya and it worked extremely well—he and the students raised $47,000 in six months, almost twice his goal.

But his 33rd birthday, and the shadow people, still waited.  His newfound activism was in fact leading him toward them.  A contact he’d made through Connecting to Kenya invited him to Ecuador to learn about conditions there.  It was a new setting, he says, but poverty looks the same everywhere, and it brings the same degradation.

Whyte was walking the streets of Quito, Ecuador’s capital, one hot afternoon.

“There, between the shadows of the tall buildings and the narrow streets of Quito was a 12 year old boy glowing in the sun.  I was two months away from my 33rd birthday.  He was a child soldier.  He had been sent out onto the streets by a team of men because he was available, he was cheap and he was disposable.  He pointed a handgun at my chest and waved at an open door,” says Whyte.

Whyte made a decision.  He figured that if his life were to end, he’d rather it happen with a quick gunshot than whatever was beyond that door.  Instead of giving in to fear he looked at the boy with deep forgiveness, turned his back and walked away, expecting to hear, and feel, a shot.  Nothing happened.

“I was okay.  And as I rounded the corner of that block I made a promise right then and there to the shadow people living under my bed, in my closet, behind my door, the unseen men, women and children who weren’t far away—I would be their voice.  I would help them be heard; I would help them be seen… people like the 300,000 child soldiers active around the globe,” he says.

The shadow people of his childhood dreams were, in fact, very real.  Now, as an adult, Whyte has new dreams, and he is fully engaged in making them real.  He ends the talk by saying, “There is nothing between a dream and reality except fear.  Anything is possible.”

After watching the video, I end up with a wad of damp Kleenex in my hand and a much better sense of who Whyte is, what he does, and why.  A few days later I head off to interview him, curious to know more of his story.

Whyte may have a global focus, but his roots are as local as you can get.  He was born in Comox, grew up in Courtenay, and traces his family back six generations here in the Valley.

“My daughter is the seventh generation,” he says with satisfaction.  With a sprawling network of extended family here, and a great childhood memory attached to just about any locale in the area, he feels deeply, and happily, rooted in the Valley.

He didn’t originally set out to be all those things he is now.  He signed up to study civil engineering at BCIT, but it didn’t take him to long to learn that “face-melting solos, calculus, ramen noodles and beer in combination do not produce sustainably good results.”  He also realized that his interests lay elsewhere—he was drawn to ideas, language and communication.  He did an about-face and switched to English, where he thrived.  From there he followed his passion into a career in media.

“After I started getting artsy-fartsy,” he begins with a laugh—deep voiced, stocky, his dark hair shorn close to his head, standing six-foot something and wearing jeans and a T-shirt, he hardly looks ‘artsy’—”I volunteered at the Eagle radio station.”

At first he did whatever needed to be done, learning the ropes by helping out and finding mentors.  Eventually he got his own show.  From there more opportunities appeared.  He was invited to go to Tofino to build a radio station, which turned out to be a year-long adventure setting up the station and training people, including First Nations youth, to run it.

He went on to work at a radio station in Victoria, and then signed up to study Television Broadcast and Media Communications at BCIT.  He then worked as a technician for CBC on shows such as The Hour and Zed.  The stimulated his interest in current affairs and he began to read about global issues.

“Romeo Dallaire became a really big focus for me, and James Orbinski, founder of the Canadian branch of Doctors Without Borders, and Stephen Lewis,” he says.

His life seemed to be well on track—and then came the assignment with Kortu, and the encounter in Ecuador, and everything changed.  He’d already started his own media consulting company, but quitting his job meant he had to make it work—and find the time for the passion that drove him.

He soon realized he had to change his attitude toward money and work.

“I changed my whole perspective on business.  It’s not about making me rich, it’s about giving me more time.  Why spend your life making money to be secure, then retire and worry and about how to spend it, and then die?  I want to spend my time doing things that fulfill me, which is mainly learning and teaching.”

That first year he was mostly learning.  “I was reading and reading, mostly about children’s issues around the world and also things like basic geography.  For instance, where the hell is Liberia?  And while I was reading, I also was thinking I need to go back to university.

“I thought, ‘That’s crazy… just crazy enough to do,’” he quips.  He signed up for a Liberal Arts degree at Vancouver Island University.

About this time he found himself at a talk given by Craig Kielburger, who founded Free The Children when he was 12 years old.  This International organization engages youth in North America and the UK, educating them and involving them in finding solutions to global child poverty.

Not only did this talk spark Whyte’s first major project as a social entrepreneur and activist, it gave him an unforgettable lesson in the power of leadership and community.

“He got me all jazzed up.  Then, at a pivotal moment he asked who in the audience had an idea they were ready to move forward on.  Me and two others put up our hands.  Then, he asked who in the audience was ready to help these three people.  Everyone put up their hands.

“At that moment I realized—the support is always out there.”

That support helped Whyte channel his excitement into Connecting to Kenya.  He used the contacts he already had—in particular, his wife, who is a teacher—to get a fast-track into the school system.

“I worked out a program that was tied to the curriculum, so it didn’t waste anyone’s time.  I was going in and doing up to 10 presentations a week, reaching 300-400 people a week.”

He taught the local kids about conditions in Kenya and got them involved in fundraising, mostly by creating art, printing it on cards, and selling them.

“A spin-off was that kids got excited about art.  They had no idea it could do that,” he says.  By the project’s completion, he figured he’d reached about 5,000 people, opening their eyes to global realities and showing them they could be powerful agents of change.  As a result, 600 children in Kenya got a new school, health care, water system, library and entrepreneurial skills to solidify their ideas for the future.

Then, after his eye-opening trip to Ecuador, he returned to Canada to found HEAL (Health, Education and Love for children affect by conflict), a six-month campaign to raise awareness and funds to eradicate the use of children in conflict.

Whyte definitely sees himself as a leader, and happily admits that he likes being in charge, but he firmly resists any attempt by anyone to put him on a pedestal.  He’s not applying for sainthood anytime soon.

“What I do isn’t selfless, not at all.  In fact, it’s pretty selfish,” he says.  “Everything we do is rewarding if we do it with a deep passion.  Everything I do, I do because I love it.”

That’s a lot of love—Whyte still runs his media consulting company, gets more and more work as a public speaker, has a part-time job doing education for the Regional District waste management program, does the odd gig as a wedding photographer, etc., etc., etc.  He just finished his Masters degree, is planning to return to school to get a PhD, and is continually making new plans and connecting with new partners.

He has no plans to slow down or narrow his focus.  He feels everything he does is connected, and connection—between projects, ideas, people, countries, cultures, and generations, between heart and mind, between information and action—is one of the big themes in Whyte’s life.

“I’m a big picture kind of guy.  I love making connections,” he says.

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While some people are testaments to talent, others are testaments to courage, and others are testaments to adventurousness.   Musicians and Valley residents—whenever they get the chance to be Valley residents—Darrel Delaronde and Saskia Overbeek are an amalgam of all three virtues.

They’re also smart and practical—keys to their success.  They had a plan five years ago, and they acted on that plan.  Young and foolish only serves the young and foolish.  They are happy they’re no longer young and foolish and for that reason, they believe, the plan worked beyond their imaginings.

“A dream without a plan is just a fantasy,” says Darrel, while noting that this was the insight that prompted the couple to pull up their Comox Valley stakes and head out to who-knew-whatever a half decade ago.

They headed to the Canadian hinterland to give vent to the powerful musical muse that had been part of their personal fundament for many years.  It was a scary time, both admit.  They had their ‘day jobs’ that had kept house and home together for the couple and they loved living in the Comox Valley.  But, they also knew that this wasn’t the place that would give them the sort of access they needed to the music world.

“Our idea was to gain a foothold initially in the western provinces,” Saskia says.  “We wanted to become recognizable performers in the venues we began to frequent.  It worked beyond our wildest expectations.  In that first year we had 40 dates between March and May.”

During those five years, aside from all their Canadian gigs —which by this point are too numerous to count—they also toured Europe twice, and found that experience “incredible,” as Darrel says.

Initially they chose to go to the Prairies, Saskatchewan to be precise. That was because Darrel believed there to be musical inspiration in the climatic harshness of the nation’s heart.  Vancouver Island and the Comox Valley were too pastoral for what he wanted to explore as a songwriter.

“We love the Island and it is the place that brought us the peace and inner growth that we needed to set forth on the venture,” he says.  “But when I write a song I want to be yearning for something.  The Island is, to state the case simply, too beautiful, and that cuts down on my creativity.  It leaves me too contented.  When I’m here I want to go kayaking; I want to climb a mountain.  On the Prairies there is a beauty in the starkness.”

So, when the urge to for once and for all see if they could make it in the realm of musical entertainment grew too pervasive, they gave up the reasonable security of mill work, in Darrel’s case, and laboring in a real estate office for Saskia, and took the plunge and headed out.   They’ve never looked back.

The original idea called for them to test their mettle for five years.  Well, the five years are now up and they still are yet to look back and call it a day, much to the delight of their huge numbers of fans.

They established their foothold by buying a house on the North Saskatchewan River, part way between North Battleford and Saskatoon.  From that home base they branched out to concerts throughout the Prairies initially, and included a number of concert forays into BC and went as far east as the Maritimes.

But, back to the beginnings for this intensely creative duo—a domestic and creative duo.   Darrel and Saskia met in Revelstoke about 20 years ago. He was playing country music and she was in a small group with two other women.  For both of them, performance was lifeblood.  When they weren’t performing with their own groups they also did backup work for such notables as Ian Tyson, Dick Dameron and Ronnie Prophet, among others.  It was in that folk/country sound that Saskia and Darrel were most comfortable.

While each boasted a distinctly personal musical style, they found that when they melded their respective approaches to music, the blend took.  And that blend has pleasingly grown over the years since that time as they evolved as a creative team.

“Our collaboration was like that old movie Yours, Mine and Ours,” Saskia says. “Darrel brought his creativity and I brought mine and we blended them for a sound that I think is unique.”

And, of course, the musical collaboration is just a part of the equation. There is also the domestic aspect of their being life partners—ones with very different backgrounds.  Darrel is, as he puts it, a Saskatchewan boy steeped in “Saskatchewania” and especially that province’s Metis traditions and whose grandfather was the founder of The Metis Association of Saskatchewan. Listen to the passion of his song Louis Riel and you will get some idea of how important his heritage is to his creative psyche.

Saskia, on the other hand, finds her roots in an entirely different world.  Born in Utrecht, Netherlands she didn’t set eyes on Canada until she was 16 years old back in 1975 when her family emigrated from tightly-populated Holland to the well-beyond-the-outback near Dawson Creek.  It was a huge shock, she says, but she soon learned to love every bit of it, including the minus-40 temperatures.  The wide-open-spaces were alluring to her.

“Even though I’ve been back a number of times (including in concert tours with Darrel) and love going, I would never consider living in Europe again,” she says.

But their two European tours have been “incredible”, Saskia says.  The most notable came about when they were doing a private house concert in Alberta.  At concert’s end they were approached by their host who happened to mention that his brother worked at the Canadian embassy in Berne, Switzerland and would they be interested in doing a concert at the embassy.  “It was one of those ‘Would we?’ moments,” says Darrel.

“We played at the ambassador’s house and present were Swiss government officials, members of the diplomatic corps and so forth,” says Darrel.  “We still communicate with those people.”

And, after the two tours of Europe, they plan on a further tour next year. They find it a bit intriguing that while they were hoping initially to conquer the Canadian heartland, they’d developed something of a ‘Transatlantic’ reputation.

“We have an amazing number of fans in Germany,” due to the fact that Germans love the whole concept of the Wild West, Darrel says.  Meanwhile, Holland is something of a no-brainer due to Saskia’s heritage.

“It’s especially easy for us there because my dad lives there,” Saskia says.  “We rented a van and drove to various towns in an effort to build a fan base in Holland.  A lot of English rock bands got their start in the Netherlands, so they were really open to us.  Also the Dutch-Canadian connection because of the war is so strong that we always felt so welcome. The fact that Darrel and I combine both Dutch and Canadian makes it even better.”

To mark this connection Darrel wrote a song called War Bride, which is the tale of a Dutch girl who fell in love with a Canadian soldier going out to reunite with her husband, a Saskatchewan farmer.

“It turned out really well,” Darrel says.  “I’d like to play it in Holland on May 5 next year, which is Liberation Day in Holland and commemorates the role of the Canadian Army in that liberation.”

Indeed, Darrel has a strong impulse to show a citizen’s gratitude for those who have served this country in various conflicts, and continuing with that theme is another new song called Eleventh Hour, which has a Remembrance Day theme.

“Eleventh Hour is about Remembrance Day, November 11, of course,” Darrel says. “But when I was writing it I thought, ‘Why do we just remember those who gave their all for this country just on that one day.  Why can’t every day be Remembrance Day?’”

Going back to the time they left the Valley for Saskatchewan to build up their fan base, both agree it was a great move for them.  “There’s nothing tougher than a Saskatchewan audience,” Saskia says.  “But, once you are theirs they will never let you go.  It’s very gratifying that we have fans who will literally follow us from town to town, wherever we might be performing.”

One piece of music that exemplifies their hinterland move is Song of the Prairies, which Darrel says is especially popular with those who have actually left central Canada for BC.

“We always offer that song when we’re performing in the Okanagan because so many people from the Prairies have settled there once they’ve reached a place in their lives when they can escape the Prairie winters.  But, they always miss their former home, so we do what we can to bring ‘home’ to them,” Darrel says.  “The song always works.  Often with an audience you can hear the ‘click’ happen, and then you know you have them and they have you.”

The duo also clicks well together.  “We have a huge respect for each other,” Darrel says.  “Even after all these years I’m blown away by Saskia’s voice.”

Audiences are also blown away by the melodic sounds that are purely hers but often offer undertones of Loreena McKenitt, a comparison she finds especially gratifying, despite the fact she has never made any conscious attempt to sound like McKenitt or any other singer.  Ultimately her sound has a signature of its own.

At the same time, when Darrel and Saskia were in the Comox Valley in late June, before heading out yet again to both perform and record their forthcoming CD, they admitted they were weary from the pressures of their lives.  Happy and grateful weary, but weary nonetheless.

“We love performing,” Darrel says, “but it’s stressful.  We do a lot of praying before we go on stage.  What you do is try to put yourself in a Zen place and I use a Buddhist prayer in which I ask to be free of the bondage of self.”

As for material, both for former albums and the upcoming one, they have a fertile source in the people they have known or met along the way.

“The people stories are real,” Darrel says.  “I write only through inspiration and I open myself to the muse.  I have a jukebox going on in my head all the time and I begin to feel what the song both sounds like and what it should sound like in order to work.”

The forthcoming album is called This Heart of Mine and Saskia believes it will be their best album yet.

“I feel elated by it,” she says.  “I love the songs and I am so proud of Darrel as a songwriter.

Darrel says the album offers some departures by them—welcome departures.  “I feel the album is going to go to a lot of places we haven’t been to before in our music,” he says.  “What is especially valuable to us is that it’s our own style that hasn’t been influenced by others.  I genuinely feel it’s completely original, and that’s a gratifying feeling.  I’ve been writing for the sheer joy of writing and we are allowing our musicians to draw on our metaphorical painting.  We know who we are now, and that has been a long time coming and has involved a tremendous amount of work.

“It’s all about the ability to let go,” Darrel adds.  “My goal is to simply make good music.”

“I’ve been almost in tears when I’ve realized people are singing along to our music,” Saskia says.  “When somebody cries during one of our songs it just blows us away.”

As for the recording sessions they were heading out to shortly after the interview, they accepted it as something they ‘have’ to do, with the full knowledge that it wouldn’t be the most fun aspect of the business. “Recording sessions are grueling,” Saskia says.  “Live shows are the most pleasurable aspects of what we do.  But, at the same time we’re excited that our new material will be there for the public.  We’re hoping to bring it out in September and we want to do our release concert in the Valley.”

Today, they are feeling content that their exploration of their musical world hasn’t in any way been in vain.  “We started out localized and west coast and then we went out into the world,” Darrel says.  “Everything we set out to do has materialized. We’re actually making a living—in fact we’re doing well.”

And an important aspect of their success has been their ability to sell themselves and to be unwavering in their belief in themselves.

“The real estate business taught me the basics of marketing, and then working with long-time music professionals like (veteran singer-songwriter) Gary Fjellgaard (with whom they’ve worked on an almost ongoing basis) enabled us to move forward and avoid the pitfalls,” Saskia says.

“It’s a good place to be.”

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One Response to A Musical Connection

  1. I have known Darrel since grade 8. He has always been an entertaining personality. I recently went to one of their concerts and met Saskia. They are an inspiration to all. I love their music. We recently drove to Whitehorse Yukon and their music got us through some of the long hours on the road. Love to you both. What a spectacular piece of writing. I wish them all the best, it is not often a person can say they have met two very genuinely nice people.