Making Beautiful Music: Winning Okanagan Women Performers
by Dona Sturmanis
The Okanagan Valley is alive with the sweet sounds of talented songstresses and songwriters. They span the ages—20s to 60s—and the genres—folk, jazz, country and pop. And guess what?...they’re winning awards.
Jane Eamon—Life is Still Sweet
Singer-songwriter Jane Eamon of Kelowna, 61, is a true example of the “it’s never too late” philosophy.
“Writing the Centennial song for the city of Kelowna in 2005 was a huge highlight,” says Jane. “Singing it with the three other writers I hired to craft the song with me [including Carolyn Anele] in front of hundreds at Prospera Place was an amazing experience.”
She wrote her first song at 17 and got a recording date with Rogers Communications. Four years later, Jane found herself in Vancouver trying to make it as a folk singer. Her music ‘friends’ told her she wasn’t any good so she sold her guitar for $25 to pay for food and didn’t look back.
Then, at the age of 46, Jane’s future husband, Gord, dared her to enter a song into a BC Festival of the Arts competition. She won a spot in a Victoria songwriting program with renowned musical artist Stephen Fearing. “I wrote a terrible song and was accepted...it was a way in. It brought me back to life.”
“Back to life” is an understatement. Jane would garner nominations and awards including five Okanagan Music Awards, SOCAN Songwriter of the Year, placed in international songwriting contests and won the only Canadian spot as finalist in the Kerrville, Texas Newfolk Songwriting Competition in 2011.
Five CDs, tours and performances later, Jane needed a break. She and Gord spent a year traveling the US and Canada in their van. They wrote songs on the road for a new CD they recorded in Texas, Caught in Time.
Jane turned to writing and photography, penning a book, The Songwriter’s Voice, a look inside the minds of North American songwriters. She created five iPad books of her photography.
She also started recording a CD called Life is Still Sweet, to be released.
“I’ve experienced some amazing things and released five CDs of original music, won awards, travelled a lot and experienced quite the life,” says Jane. “It’s not over and there are moments I will never forget.”
Anna Jacyszyn—All that Jazz
What would bring a globetrotting jazz vocalist back to Kelowna from Shanghai, China? Family.
“My stepfather developed Alzheimer’s and it was really hard on my mother,” says Anna Jacyszyn, 47, who quickly made a name for herself with the Jazz Cafe, which she organized and performed in to full houses for five consecutive seasons.
“It was a once-a-month speakeasy where everything was served in a teacup, giving us the feel like we were in Prohibition days,” says Anna. “Never a spare seat and you could hear a pin drop because the audience loved the music. It really was a magical time.” It was also hard work; On top of performing, Anna did everything from promoting to dressing the tables.
During this time, Anna became known up and down the Okanagan Valley, earning a 2010 Okanagan Arts Award and the Kelowna Civic Award, Honour in the Arts in 2013. She also recorded a CD, Lush Life (2010).
Born in Warsaw, Poland, Anna childhood years were spent in Ontario and Kelowna. “I was always singing and writing songs or verses.”
Anna fell in love with jazz while living in London, England auditioning for “anything that paid [her] to sing.” She worked as a back-up vocalist, a session singer, and sang in music videos, Her talent opened doors and she was invited to other countries to sing jazz at private parties and special occasions. “I was the posh girl who sang at your event.” Anna says, and it wasn’t until she moved to Shanghai that she started to take jazz singing truly serious and developed a style uniquely her own.
“The structure of jazz allows for interpretation which feels like you are following no rules but in fact you are adhering to them all,” she says. “Jazz musicians are true artists and can paint a picture with a melody.”
Besides performing, Anna is a dog nanny, and lives with her husband and mother on the original Kelowna land her family bought in the early 70s. She also writes a newspaper arts column.
“Now that I have a fan base and followers of great iconic music, I know I will run a club like Jazz Cafe in Kelowna again,” she says.
Carolyn Anele—Singing Her Heart Out
When she’s not raising her family, Vernon singer-songwriter Carolyn Anele, in her 40s, sits at her kitchen table surrounded by sheet music in various stages of completion. “It’s a great compliment when someone tells me how they’ve been affected by one of my songs or how they relate to it,” she says.
As a kid Carolyn started creating melodies on piano. By 1993, in her mid 20s, she had bought a mike, an amp and was “singing my heart out in the basement so nobody could hear me!” Acceptance to a Power Song Workshop in Vancouver three years later affirmed her decision to pursue singing and songwriting.
For inspiration, Carolyn admires artists including Canadian songwriters like Roy Forbes and Bill Henderson who have been a huge influence on her writing.
Carolyn has been recognized in the music community and won several awards, including the ArtsWells Songwriting Competition and the Fred Penner Songwriting Contest.
A recent performance highlight was singing a John Prine song, In Spite of Ourselves, with lauded Toronto guitar player—songwriter Wendell Ferguson in Edmonton.
Carolyn has released three CDs, including Where Birds Sing, her first full-length album, for which she had a May release concert in her hometown, Salmon Arm. As for performances, she’s planning to stay close to home and do some showcases and concerts.
“I produce my own shows, I don’t wait around for people to knock on my door, and I’m not afraid to ask for help,” she says. As for writing music, “I’ve always had this lofty goal that my music will uplift, inspire and heal.”
Nikita Afonso—A Little Bit Country
“Singing with Keith Urban was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that still gives me chills,” says Penticton’s 20-year-old Nikita Afonso. “I was chosen to sing a song with one of my favourite country stars!”
When country legend Keith performed at Penticton’s South Okanagan Events Centre (SOEC) in 2011, he pulled the young singer-songwriter from the audience with two others to sing a portion of his song Kiss A Girl. Then, the audience cheered for their favorite—Nikita—who sang the rest of the song with Keith alone.
Nikita also opened for Canadian country act Paul Brandt at SOEC three years ago. “It isn’t every day a 17-year-old girl gets to play in her hometown arena opening for a star like this. I am thankful for everyone who helped me get on that stage!”
She started writing music at 11, shortly after receiving her first guitar from her grandparents. “The songs were amateurish but as I continued writing and listening to more music, my writing style progressed and hit a level where I was able to feel comfortable sharing them with an audience.” A 15 she started playing at coffee shops, fundraisers, restaurants and the Penticton Farmer’s Market.
In addition to her musical pursuits, Nikita received the Penticton Young Leader of the Year and Young Citizen of the Year awards, was a Penticton Princess, and played on the Penticton Pinnacles soccer team.
She has two CDs: Sweetest Things (2010) and the self-titled Nikita Afonso (2012). In April, she graduated from the two-year Contemporary Music and Technology diploma program at Nelson’s Selkirk College.
With influences ranging from Carrie Underwood to, yes, Keith Urban—Nikita says her goal is to go to Nashville. “I like all kinds of music, especially country music and Nashville is Music City!” In the meantime, she plans to perform as much music as possible this summer in Penticton, solo and with her current band Nikita and the Bluffs.
She feels very fortunate to have a supportive family. “They understand that music is what I love and encourage me to become a professional musician.”
Don Weixl photo