Veteran resort singer Jon Shrier never imagined a music career for himself in the former Soviet nation of Uzbekistan, but then again, he never thought he’d be performing for thousands of Chinese fans at the Zhangjiajie International Country Music Festival either.
Shrier and fellow Whistler musician Laura Nedelak were invited by Chinese officials to attend the biannual week-long event, which took place earlier this month. The festival promotes the cultural exchange of national folk music with over 500 artists from 50 different countries attending.
Having only met for the first time in the weeks leading up to their departure for the northwestern Chinese city, Shrier and Nedelak knew they had their work cut out for them before hitting the stage in front of thousands of attendees, and the millions watching on TV.
“It was surreal. For the closing ceremony we had approximately two or three thousand people in front of us, and for the opening ceremonies I think it was the same. It felt like we belonged, like we worked hard and deserved it,” said Shrier. “It couldn’t have gone any better.”
For Nedelak, who is a regular children’s performer at Whistler’s library, playing on such a large scale was daunting initially, but she credits Shrier for preparing her for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“To be able to be coupled with someone like Jon who has done 200 shows in a year when I’ve probably done 200 shows in my lifetime, it was a boost for me because when the bar is set higher then you always rise to that bar,” she said.
It was the time the pair, who’ve dubbed themselves The Whistler Mountain Duo, spent away from the stage that really solidified their positive relationship, according to Shrier, who said he plans to have Nedelak record on his upcoming album.
“From my perspective, when the performing was over and we were eating together, sightseeing together — I climbed the Great Wall with her and her husband —it was those experiences that really sealed the bond for performing,” he said. “ It was a wonderful experience to work with Laura, she’s a total pro.”
Of course, the major benefit of performing at an international festival that showcases a diverse range of national musical styles is meeting and playing with the hundreds of different artists in attendance. Whether it was a Colombian rock band or a group of Mongolian throat singers, Nedelak was inspired by the cavalcade of talented artists she met in China.
“The highlight for me was for sure meeting musicians from everywhere and having that common bond,” she said. “(We encountered) instruments we’d never seen before, let alone heard.”
With an invitation from organizers to return for the next Zhangjiajie festival in 2015, the duo, who took home an award for best vocal performance at the event, are already planning to assemble an accompanying band and are considering writing a song that would hopefully become the event’s anthem. But before then, Shrier has his mind set on taking his career to the most unlikely of places.
After meeting an Uzbeki event planner in China, Shrier decided he will visit the landlocked Central Asian country in January to play some gigs, and see what opportunities may arise.
“I made a connection with the Uzbeki people (at the festival). They have a wedding season that is very popular with thousands of people showing up to each wedding, it’s mind boggling, so there’s room there to perform. There’s also room to perform with an Eastern band, blending my Western style with theirs,” he said. “We’re going to beef up promotions and try and get my name out there and then work from there.”
Both Nedelak and Shrier have the Whistler community to thank for helping them ahead of the Chinese festival. As a working musician, Shrier said he counted on the generosity of several people to help him pay the way to Zhangjiajie, while Nedelak was able to shake off her stage rust ahead of the event thanks to local businesses who gave her a place to play.
“I played everywhere and anywhere people would have me, and I have to say a lot of the businesses in town were really obliging, and had I not had that practice it would have been a completely different experience,” Nedelak said. “I just didn’t expect that kind of support.”
Shrier will be hosting the Whistler’s Got Talent music search every Thursday at the Crystal Lounge, starting Oct. 3. Nedelak is also taking part as a judge.