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From Waverley to the world

Pursuing careers in the arts and entertainment sectors requires entrepreneurial savvy, as well as talent and hard work

Li Liu’s career journey started when she was a little girl in Taiwan, where her beautiful laugh ended up on a radio commercial. Since then, music has taken her to Hong Kong, the United States and Canada. Her partner, guitarist Ben Holt, is from Waverley, Nova Scotia.

In middle school, Li played saxophone. One day as a teenager she ended up on stage, singing with Bobby McFerrin. “He is my inspiration,” she says. “He uses his own voice to achieve many kinds of art forms.”

After college, she knew she had to pursue her goal of becoming a jazz singer. She was supported by her father and her mother, a piano teacher. Playing paying gigs in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Li felt validated. “I loved the jazz scene and the people in it,” she says.

In 2013 she moved to Texas to enroll in the master’s program at the University of North Texas (UNT). There, Li and Ben formed the band Song Dynasty, blending American jazz and Chinese styles. They have toured in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Their first record Searching is about to be released.

Creating stories

Sylvia Beirnes lives in Toronto now, but she is often in Nova Scotia on business. Growing up in Vancouver and Halifax, she danced, attended theatre school and performed in plays. As a teenager, she lived in Waverley, just down the road from Ben Holt.

In grade seven Sylvia ended up on Street Cents, hosted by Jonathan Torrens, the CBC TV show that taught kids how to be enlightened consumers. Her first job was selling popcorn at Empire Theatres in Halifax. “My dad worked in the business and I got to go behind the camera and see how stories were created in the make-believe world of movies and TV,” she says. “I would go to his office on my days off. I loved seeing the business and the arts side-by-side.”

After getting a business degree at St FX, Sylvia took a marketing job with Mercedes-Benz in BC. Then she became the manager of digital media at Empire Theatres, and later manager of social media at Cineplex. The world of entertainment kept calling. Her husband Jordan Beirnes and her friend the actor Jared Keeso founded the popular TV comedy show Letterkenny.

Realizing that a lot of entertainment is not done by traditional screens anymore, she founded her own digital marketing agency, By Coastal. She also co-founded Canadianity Content Studios (CCS) with Jonathan Torrens (that guy!) and musician Jeremy Taggart. The duo parody Canadian Life in a podcast, book and live shows. CCS also produces Get Growing with Niki Jabbour and is launching Your Two Cents, a savvy-consumer webcast sponsored by the Credit Unions of Atlantic Canada.

Dark side of the moon

Like a lot of teenage boys, Ben Holt was bored by high school. The experience was redeemed in grade 11 by his guitar solos in a couple of Pink Floyd tunes at a school talent night. This led to a year in Music Arts at Nova Scotia Community College, and to the jazz studies program at St. FX.

His university connections led Ben to complete a master’s in jazz studies at UNT and he has lived there ever since. The Dallas music scene is rich. His regular gigs at The Free Man and with Fingerprints put him in the midst of the black music scene. He is surrounded by musicians from Asia and Latin America. As music director of Cross Church, a modern Gospel church, he helps weave together styles rooted in Black Spirituals. “Like a typical millennial, I like the multicultural scene here,” he says.

Ben also teaches at Tarrant Community College. His main gig, though, is Song Dynasty, where Li sings in several Chinese languages, as well as English. They play increasingly large venues like festivals and mega-churches.

That freedom thing

“The biggest thing for me is freedom,” says Ben. “I like being my own boss and I value playing with talented people. Li and I want to travel the world and play with musicians from different cultures.”

“Make your own opportunities,” says Sylvia. “Stick to your guns. Push for what you care about, not what others think you should do. I’ve never been as happy as I am now.”

“It’s easy to get a band together because there are talented UNT musicians all over the world,” says Li. “So far the audiences love our sound.”

Back in Taiwan, she formed the band Blueberry Jazz Pie, named after the film My Blueberry Nights. Now, when she is in Nova Scotia, if it’s the right season, she has all the fresh berries she can eat. As for Ben, when he isn’t practicing, playing, recording or teaching, he is learning Chinese.

Disclosure: David Holt is the father of Ben Holt. He lives in Waverley.


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