key to success

🕔Sep 07, 2005

“The Bulkley Valley is one of B.C.’s musical hotspots,” we often hear. If this is true, does it offer gems for other communities wishing to develop their own fortés?

When we put this question out informally, no less than 18 people from diverse community sectors came forward within 72 hours to share their views.

“Music is an integral part of community life in Smithers,” says Kate Smallwood, a Smithers-based communications consultant. “It’s in our blood, and woven into the community fabric.”

Other interviewees agreed—and said music has become a significant economic force to boot.

They describe an astonishing volume of music events supported by Smithers and Telkwa, which together are home to just over 7,000 people.

There’s the 22-year-old Midsummer Festival in late June, with close to 60 music acts, and long-running seasonal events, like the Joe L’Orsa Coffeehouse in December and Valentino’s: a sequin-spangled mid-February musical theatre event which runs twice to meet demand.

In any given month, there’s a musical smorgasbord: coffeehouses, house concerts, big name sell-out concerts, dances, family folk dances, and fundraisers. They feature a cappella, alternative, blues, bluegrass, Celtic, classical, contemporary opera, country, early music, electronica, folk, musical theatre, Latin, jazz, swing, rock, world music and more. They’re produced by individuals, groups assembled on a per-project basis, and organizations like the BV Folk Music Society (BVFMS), the BV Arts Council, and the BV Concert Association.

“I’m fairly confident that we have more musicians, and more variety of singer/songwriter persons per capita than any other non-urban centre in B.C.,” says Janet Walford, owner of Mountain Eagle Books in Smithers.

Pam Allen, a Telkwa mother of four fiddle-crazy kids, agrees. “They are never-ending and come from all walks of life, religions, nationalities,” she says, contrasting Smithers with comparably sized towns where she “could name all the musicians.”

That’s a tough task in this valley, as CBC Radio’s arts program North by Northwest learned when planning an April 16 broadcast from Smithers. When producers asked locals to suggest acts for the show, they were given a list two pages long.

“I hate to name names because…where do you start?” asks Mark Perry, a nationally recognized performer who has “monumentalized” this region in songs like “Northern Skies.”

But at the risk of grievous omission, a few stars demand special mention.

In addition to Mark, there are the Valley Youth Fiddlers, the Smithers Community Band, community choirs like the Local Vocals and Sweet Harmony. There is Jenny Lester, a rising star in bluegrass, banjo and guitar virtuoso Scott Atchison and Cuban-born Alexis Puentes, whose band is scaling British charts.

The “Celtic mafia,” including bands such as Talisker, and the classical music set with its catalyst Wolfgang Loschberger. The visionaries who have animated the whole scene, such as Kevin Widen, Marian Rose, the late Ted Turner, George & Norma Stokes, Richard & Gail Jenne. And the new wave—comprising kids of BV Music scene veterans, who are sweeping awards and fans as CDK, Jazzology, the Tubeless Girls and Clamour.

Economic spin-offs are evident. Music dollars support musicians, student scholarships, recording technicians, retailers of musical instruments and locally produced CDs, instructors, and even two luthier businesses, that make and repair stringed instruments.

“Many music teachers of all disciplines are able to sustain themselves as a result of the demand for music,” adds Smithers instructor Sharon Carrington.

Touring performers also offer workshops, two week-long guitar camps each draw 50 students from across Canada and sell out months in advance, and the Northwest Fiddlefest offers a week of top-notch instruction to 145 students annually.

Music also fires tourism. “As operators of the Visitor Info Center, we regularly see people who are visiting Smithers for a musical event,” says Smithers Chamber of Commerce manager Brian Burrill. “They’re looking for information on restaurants, hotels and things to do.”

Longtime folk devotee Max McLaughlin notes the Midsummer Festival alone draws several 3,000-5,000 visitors per year. “Twenty years ago we were an annoying little hippie fest,” he jokes. “Now, local merchants treat us with respect and the awareness that we bring business to town.”

The Bulkley Valley isn’t the only B.C. region with talent and natural beauty, so we asked our informants: “What explains this? Are there seven habits of highly musical—or just highly effective—towns”? Here’s what they offered.


“The primary difference [between this and other regions] is that we actively promote the development of amateur musicians, and provide venues for them,” says Max. “Most other venues support professionals only. We play music. This is the single most important feature about us.”

Besides an incredible music program at Smithers Secondary School and instructional events, new musicians of all ages debut at coffeehouses, a festival which emphasizes local talent, at least two ongoing, open music circles, and the festival’s Jam Zone. Event proceeds fund bursaries for them, and a new CD duplicator available through the BVFMS makes recording affordable.

Cheryl Hofweber offers a potent example. A decade ago, she wouldn’t play guitar in public. But several guitar camps and coffeehouses later, she’s writing, playing and singing her own songs. This late-blooming musician has just released her first CD.


The Bulkley Valley music set networks effectively. Music lovers trade information and inspiration in physical spaces (like Mountain Eagle Books, a musical nexus in Smithers), but also virtually. For example, some 400 music-lovers subscribe to, a BVFMS volunteer-run email list where anyone can post and receive ad-free music-related information at no cost.


This region embraces a highly co-operative, regional approach to cultural development. Instead of competing with other festivals, the Midsummer Festival helps birth them—by offering seed money. The result: regional, “remote” festivals in places like Smithers, Rosswood, Haida Gwaii, and Kispiox gain economies-of-scale benefits by cross-promoting each others’ events, sharing audiences, volunteers, performers and management insight. This broad-minded stance legitimizes a wide variety of music and fosters creative cross-fertilization among genres.


BV Music is a family affair.

“Every family I know has at least one member playing a musical instrument, singing regularly, dancing or enjoying making music in some form or another,” says Elaine Edmison, whose operatic voice is cherished by many.

Kids think it’s “cool” to play music, and nowhere is this more obvious than the Valley Youth Fiddlers whose 56 youth members range from four to 20 years old.

“Per capita, I bet there’s more fiddlers here than anywhere else in western Canada,” says Ruth Lloyd, whose daughters Tirion and Siani are among them. “Most are young and it’s entirely peer pressure—the kids want to play because their friends do, not because their parents make them!”

The Midsummer Festival actively promotes family-friendly music, through children’s activities and entertainment, a discounted family rate on Sunday, and strictly alcohol-free zones.


The BV Music community itself is pretty family-like, as was shown last year when two well-loved musicians faced serious health challenges and generous music-driven fundraisers were thrown together within days. Such outpourings promote volunteerism by making people feel part of something bigger, in a spiritual sense, than a music event.

“I can’t play a note but I feel like I am still part of the music community. Everyone has something to offer,” says Cindy Savage, who has taken on just about every volunteer position there is at the Midsummer.


Consciously or not, Bulkley Valley musicians operate in a “virtuous circle.”

“The quality of music/musicians and the spectrum of age and music style is continuously expanding, and the community responds to this by creating even more growth,” explains Max.

Recently, three music-lovers—separately, and unprompted—voiced ambitious ideas to celebrate and build on recent successes.

Singer-songwriter Frank Hoorn suggested expanding the BV Music e-mail list, to promote music in the entire Northwest. Peter Haines, an Australian musician who’s become an integral part of just about every local music event, mused about a community-produced national radio show. And Chamber of Commerce manager Brian Burrill was envisioning a first-rate education/convention facility on Hudson Bay Mountain, a Banff Centre for B.C., which could showcase music, art, performance and Wet’suwet’en culture.


Lastly, Bulkley Valley musicians look outward, forging connections with brilliant mentors. The most notable example is Oliver Schroer, a Juno-nominated, cutting- edge composer/violinist who has all but adopted the 56 young Valley Youth Fiddlers. Between numerous other creative projects, Schroer is pushing their musical development. He secured them a place on the Vancouver International Folk Festival stage, is producing their second CD, and now cultivates an innovative offshoot of talented teen fiddlers called Twisted String.

“I like the vibe here,” says Schroer, who insists he receives as much creative nourishment here as he gives. “People are creating community in a very conscious way.”

©Larissa Ardis

Headliner bands at Smithers’ Midsummer Festival June 24-26 include: the Polyjesters (swing/folk/jazz), La Candela (Cuban salsa/funk), singer-songwriter Greg MacPherson, dance band Carolyn Mark and her Roommates, and African drummer/dancer/storyteller David Thiaw.

Learn more about the BV Music scene and the Midsummer Festival at

To join the BVMusic list, visit

Check out these regional music festivals:

  • Smithers Midsummer Festival: June 24-26
  • Gingolx (Kincolith) Crab Fest: July 1, 2
  • Haida Gwaii Edge of the World Festival: July 8-10
  • Prince George Folk Festival: July 22-23
  • Kispiox Music Festival: July 29-31
  • Terrace Riverside Music Festival: Aug. 5-7
  • Burns Lake Bluegrass Festival (now part of the Burns Lake Fall Fair) Sept. 9-11