Tarun Nayar’s career takes place on and off the stage. A founding member of the outfit Delhi 2 Dublin, co-founder (with Asad Khan) of the digital label Snakes x Ladders, and artist manager, in 2019 he became the Executive Director of 5XFest, after serving as its artistic director since 2016.

Once known as City of Bhangra, the Vancouver-based festival had successfully put traditional Punjabi music and culture on the map in Vancouver, but waning numbers and interest signaled that it was time for a change. 5XFest, a South Asian millennial festival inspired by the SXSW and Afropunk fests, officially launched in 2018.

Over his 15 years as a performer, tabla player Nayar – who’s trained in Indian classical music, and later developed a love for creating genre-less sounds in Delhi 2 Dublin, by fusing beats from all over the world – noticed an unmistakable absence in the faces to which he performed.

“So many [South Asian] kids grow up playing music, and music is so much a part of the culture,” says Nayar. “And yet at all of these festivals we were playing – largely in non-South Asian spaces, everything from Burning Man to some crazy festival in Bali – you just wouldn’t see any Indian people, either onstage or in the crowd. And I was like, there’s a disjoint here, especially in Canada.”

5XFest was created to address that disconnect. “Young South Asians have to decide whether to go to the wedding reception to listen to South Asian music, or to the club to listen to Drake,” says Nayar. “There’s no place where they can be the totality of themselves. We’re the only festival of our kind in North America, and possibly the world. I’ve gone to a lot of festivals in India and Asia, and we’re the only ones really championing this South Asian youth culture in a meaningful way, and actually connecting with young people.”

When not working from his home office, Nayar connects with the 5X Festival team. It’s a “super-tight” team of four, primarily young women, that expands to more than 100 (including volunteers, and skilled volunteers they call “special ops”) as the festival draws near, as well as the digital marketing team Skyrocket. The festival has also formed a team dedicated to 5X Press, a new initiative that fosters year-round engagement, reaching 10,000 subscribers weekly. “[It] talks about all the great and interesting things happening in the South Asian world, globally,” he says.

Nayar believes all these initiatives will help South Asian youths connect with their global family. ““There’s a bunch of really cool kids doing awesome stuff, and they’re not getting opportunities,” he says. “In my experience, by giving [them] those opportunities, it’s pretty mind-blowing what they can do.”

Tarun’s Tips to Prep for Success

Know what you want: “It helps when there are strong goals, a sound business sense, and realistic expectations. I provide advice and guidance for a lot of people, [but] the artist I decided to manage, Khanvict, is someone who has a track record of connecting with people. There’s not the initial three years of wondering if people will like what this guy does, because he’s been killing it in the South Asian world for years. He came to me with a specific goal: ‘I really want to do mainstream festivals and events.’ That’s a very defined problem, and we’ve been working really hard.”

Be Ready: “So many questions come to us. Kids hit us up by e-mail, like, ‘Yo, I want you to manage me.’ Alright, send us your links. And they don’t have any music up. They don’t have any social media presence. What do you want me to manage here?”

The right manager-artist fit matters: “There’s so much time invested into building someone’s career and taking them from one level to the next. It really has to be someone that I’m in love with as an artist, and person.”

Thor Simonsen is on a mission.

The entrepreneurial owner of the Iqaluit-based, full-service record label Hitmakerz  is determined to help Nunavut musicians and recording artists attain sustainable careers through a number of initiatives.

One of these programs, Arctic Hitmakerz, finds a Nunavut collective of musicians traveling to remote Northern communities in Canada’s largest territory – usually in schools – to offer workshops on songwriting, recording, and instrumentation.

“Our program is designed to be held over a long weekend,” says Simonsen. “We usually have a concert on Friday night, and then Saturday and Sunday are our workshops. In some communities, there’s also a talent show, and concerts where the students perform a song that they’ve written.”

“The feedback we get from our community is just so overwhelmingly positive.” – Thor Simonsen of Hitmakerz

But here’s where Arctic Hitmakerz excels: the equipment they bring includes a laptop, a microphone, headphones, and a MIDI keyboard – all of which they leave behind, enabling the students to further experiment and express themselves.

“We teach them how to use it, so they have a way to  record themselves and start their own learning processes,” says Simonsen. “We also provide an all-Inuit crew of instructors – and they’re usually notable artists in Nunavut. We’ve had Kelly Fraser and Angela Amarualik sing and speak in Inuktitut.”

In 2019 alone, Hitmakerz traveled to a dozen remote Northern communities, reaching thousands – and Simonsen says the response has been tremendous. “The feedback we get from our community is just so overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “In most communities, there are schools that have some sort of musical programming, but there’s definitely a lack of resources in terms of instruments, and especially recording equipment. So, that’s where we found we can add a lot of value by providing a small recording set-up for each community.”

Nunavut, with its 35,000 inhabitants spread over 1.8 million kilometres, faces greater challenges than most communities, especially when it comes to career development. Even in the capital of Iqaluit, there are no major venues to play – and there’s also the inflated costs of living, where a container of orange juice sets you back $27.

Angela Amarualik, Hitmakerz

Angela Amarualik

“It’s difficult to create a sustainable career,” Simonsen acknowledges. “Travel costs are pretty prohibitive. It’s pretty expensive to get around up here. Travel and lodging eats up most of our budget, so it’s quite challenging to put on the workshops.”

Distance is another trial. “Nunavut is the largest region in Canada and we’ve only been in one of the three areas in Nunavut so far,” says Simonsen, who admits that the Canadian Federal government and other organizations usually foot the bills. “We’ve been to 13 communities, and normally for a workshop we’ll travel two to six hours north of Iqaluit, and Iqaluit itself is a three-hour flight north of Ottawa.”

But the results speak for themselves, as in the case of Igloolik-born singer and songwriter Angela Amarualik. “Angela started out as a student in Iqaluit when we started there in 2017,” says Simonsen. “She used the studio, took the songwriting workshops to heart, and within two years she released her own self-titled album, which was nominated for three Indigenous Music Awards. She’s doing another workshop with another company now, and performing across Canada, but it’s a big milestone to have her come back to Hitmakerz as an instructor. She’s teaching other youths and inspiring them by example.”

Recently, the Hitmakerz label released Ajungi (pronounced eye-U-nee), an impressive 12-track collection featuring a variety of Nunavummiut artists, ranging from Aocelyn, FXCKMR, and Kelly Fraser to Angela Amarualik, Stuart Qiyuk, and others.

Ajungi is an extension of the work we’ve done with our workshops in our communities,” says Simonsen. “What we find is that there’s a huge pool of talent that the rest of Canada has never heard of… and because we’re able to give them access to studios and inspire them to take the initiative to pursue these careers, we’ve been able to put together this album of artists from across Nunavut.

“We signed them to our studio in Iqaluit, have them professionally produced, mixed, and mastered, and we think we’ve created a holistic album that’s palatable to Southern listeners. It’s one thing to perform and sing songs and tell stories through our native Nunavut, but it’s another thing to try and communicate these ideas and these feelings and these stories to the rest of Canada, and the world.”

The album offers insightful electronic and hip-hop glimpses into Nunavut life through the eyes of its creators – and some proceeds raised by the project are earmarked for Kamatsiaqtut Nunavut Helpline. “We felt it was important to donate to the helpline since many of the songs were about mental health issues, and it’s a pressing issue in the North,” says Simonsen.

Just how pressing became evident when Hitmakerz received the tragic news that  singer-songwriter Kelly Fraser, who was nominated for an Indigenous Music Album of the Year JUNO Award in 2018 for her sophomore album Sedna, committed suicide at her Winnipeg home on Christmas Eve, at the age of 26. Her importance to the Nunavut music scene was such that even The New York Times published an obituary.

Simonsen says Fraser was “a pretty important part of our team. We really wouldn’t be where we are without her. Hitmakerz was basically founded through the production of her album Sedna. She definitely leaves a big gap in the Inuit music scene. We’re hoping to continue to do the work that she started, which is basically to inspire Inuit Youth and help them pursue their dreams.”

Speaking of dreams, Simonsen says that it’s Hitmakerz’ intent to earn a few Grammy Awards for Nunavut. “We’d like to expand our team, get our game professionalized, and be able to really monetize this music so the artists can be doing it full-time.”

“When I sang ‘C’est Zéro’ for the first time during one of my shows,” Safia Nolin reminisces, “it was crazy, the venue was on fire. It’s the type of song everyone sings along to in a karaoke bar, y’know?”

Do we ever. As did all the people gathered in the intimate and welcoming venue that is the Moulin du Portage de Lotbinière, in September of 2016, when Nolin sang a stripped-down version of the cult hit – written by Manuel Tadros and popularized by Julie Masse. She didn’t hesitate for a second, and recorded the song – which was written in 1990 – on her album Reprises Vol. 1. “What? That song was written 30 years ago?” says the young singer-songwriter. “Come on! I wasn’t even born in 1990!”

Perpetual Actualization

So is this SOCAN Classic, since 2012, still relevant today? Aside from Nolin’s gorgeous cover, New Brunswick’s Mia Martina offered us an electro-dance version in 2014. That same year, Julie Masse herself sang it during the finale of the TV music-contest show La Voix (the Québec franchise of The Voice) to an utterly ecstatic crowd.

In 2019, a podcast called “Pourquoi Julie?” (“Why Julie?”), dedicated to the singer’s career, was named one of the best podcasts of the year by Apple. On Google, the name “Julie Masse” is among the most searched in Québec. The 30-year-old song obviously benefitted from this exposure, and inspired many T-shirts worn proudly by those unafraid of “bitter, colourless mornings” (a freely translated line from the song, in French: “des matins amers, sans couleur”).

Birth of a Hit

“You want me to tell you about ‘C’est zero’? Is there really anything that hasn’t been said already?” says Manuel Tadros, jokingly. Indeed, the songwriter, actor, and jack-of-all-trades regularly gets the opportunity to talk about the birth of his hit. Here it is in a nutshell. The year is 1990, the same year that Laurence Jalbert scored with “Tomber (en amour)” (“Falling  (in Love)”), while Jean Leloup was adamant that “L’amour est sans pitié” (“Love is Merciless”), and Gerry Boulet moved us to tears with “Pour une dernière fois” (“One Last Time”). The charts could hardly have more diversity: Philippe Fontaine, Les B. B., Kashtin — take your pick!

Enter a young singer from Témiscamingue, who reached out to Tadros to ask him to write a repertoire for her. They met for the first time near Saint-Hilaire, and Tadros was struck with inspiration immediately after getting behind the wheel to drive home. “Remember, there were no cellphones back then,” says Tadros. “I know I have an awesome melody and powerful words, so I have to memorize them while I’m driving.” As soon as he got home, he quickly kissed his girlfriend and their baby, one Xavier Dolan, who was barely one at the time, and ran into his office to write everything down and record a demo.

Manuel Tadros

Manuel Tadros

However, upon hearing that demo, the singer will turn it down saying it’s “too old” for her. Tadros is discombobulated, until manager and producer Serge Brouillette contacts him. He’s just taken on a young backing vocalist with the makings of a star: at 19, Julie Masse already possessed an undeniably powerful voice and stage presence. Would Tadros have a few songs for her?

As soon as Brouillette and Masse hear “C’est zéro,” the deal is sealed. The only condition Tadros has is that he be given the task of coaching the young singer in the studio and the production duties of the song. Granted.

“Julie had never recorded anything before,” says the songwriter, “and initially, we considered making people believe she wasn’t from Québec. We really wanted the song to sound as ‘international French’ as possible. I’m really picky about pronunciation, phrasing, and word stress.”

Lest we forget, “C’est zero” was indeed distributed in France then, but it was in Québec, and in Canada, that the power ballad became extraordinarily popular as soon as it was released, on March 19, 1990. So much so that shortly after, Serge Brouillette founded Disques Victoire in order to produce Julie Masse’s albums. Trophies, No. 1 on the charts, the highest-rotation video (that was suggestive but in good taste)… It hit the jackpot. Masse even sang “C’est zero” live on the French CBC New Year’s Eve variety show as 1991 became 1992!

No Mouse

Let’s get back to the recording of the future-but-not-yet hit. Says Tadros: “My arranging partner Pierre Laurendeau and I set up at Harmonie Studio in Longueuil. Imagine this, we worked with a software called Voyetra – no one used Apple yet, back then, and we didn’t even have a mouse, it was all keyboard-based!” he remembers with a laugh.

“I’ll tell you something no one knows,” he continues. “I’m the one playing those electronic drum fills on the track! It was supposed to be Julie’s boyfriend, but he was too stiff! I told him: ‘Gimme those sticks!’

“I think one of the things that explains the continued success of this song is also its structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse… and then, Boom! There’s the bridge, 33 seconds before the song ends, with a new chord and a few new words: ‘espérer ton retour, c’est zéro’ (‘hoping you’ll come back, that’s a zero’). It’s unexpected, you know? As were the words ‘un coup de couteau dans la peau’ (‘a knife stab in the flesh’). Everyone thought that image was violent, especially when uttered by a young woman. But that’s precisely what struck people, such an extreme expression of heartbreak! People still talk to me about ‘that stabbing song!’

“I can still picture myself in that brown, two-door Chevy Malibu that I’d inherited from my father,” says Tadros, repeating those words and the melody over and over. “That car didn’t look like much, it was kind of a jalopy, but it had quite a powerful engine.”

Just as “C’est zéro” probably looked like just another pop ballad, initially. Wrong! It’s propelled by a powerful engine, according to Safia Nolin: “It reminds you, with genuine beauty, that the pain of a lost love is eternal and timeless.”