China has played a significant role in the glittering career of the Canadian pianist-composer Steve Barakatt, the man who wrote and orchestrated the UNICEF anthem Lullaby, a monumental undertaking that involved 250 artists worldwide.
The singer chosen to open the song was Leon Lai, the Beijing-born singer who is a longtime Barakatt pal and professional collaborator. Lai and other Cantopop stars love Barakatt's melodic compositions and over the years, have commissioned many songs from the Quebec City-based musical maestro.
A firm link with Hong Kong was established in 1995 when a CD he released, Audacity, impressed people in the local music industry who thought the work had a distinctly Asian vibe. The composer was commissioned to write songs for Kelly Chen, Daniel Chen and Lai; some years later, Barakatt nominated Lai to be the opening singer on the UNICEF anthem Lullaby.
"I composed it and produced it and initiated the project following an idea from Harry Belafonte," he says.
"He told me of the projects he had done when he was younger and he said 'You are young. Create an anthem for UNICEF'.
"It took a year to complete it, recording different parts in different parts of the world.
"We even had it played on the space station."
Barakatt is an official ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations children's organization that aims to help alleviate the poverty and misery endured by the world's least-fortunate children. The role has even more relevance and resonance now that Barakatt is the father of 3-year-old Victoria.
Music has been part of Barakatt's life from an early age. He released his first CD when just out of school, began writing commercial jingles for corporations as a teenager and as an adult, developed a multi-pronged career that involves playing live concerts, producing music, marketing CDs and exploring the business opportunities that the digital age has opened up.
"For me, with music and business it is about building relationships, and being creative, and having goals to accomplish."
Nowadays, Barakatt is on the road almost half the year, with stops in China, Japan and South Korea. His regular visits have also proved to be inspirational: a recent CD included the track Riding Around The Forbidden City, an ode to the world's largest palace and Beijing's grandest downtown tourist attraction. People from China seem to be enthusiastic visitors to the entertainer's website.
Barakatt's oeuvre is nothing if not broad, ranging from full-scale symphonies to jingles for car commercials and jaunty songs about the joys of drinking Chateau d'Yquem, inspired by a visit to the French vineyard.
When not zipping around Asia or other parts of the world, Barakatt lives in Quebec City, in a 200-year-old house equipped with a sophisticated recording studio. He embraced digital technology from the get-go, allowing him to import strands of music from anywhere in the world and mix them in the studio.
"I think that everyone is touched by a symphony performance in a theater, but it is like a museum - it is very formal.
"It could do with updating. Think of Cirque du Soleil which brought the traditional circus - without elephants and tigers - to a new level."
He already owes a big debt of gratitude to Cirque du Soleil, an organization indirectly responsible for him meeting his Russian wife Elena Grosheva, an Olympic silver-medal gymnast. After her competitive career, Grosheva joined the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil and first set eyes on Barakatt during a chance coffee-shop encounter, the beginning of a romance that was to involve liaisons in many continents and countries.
"Some people are afraid of becoming popular; they believe if it is popular it has less value. I think the opposite because we are communicators of emotions and to be understood is amazing. I don't know any composer who does not want to be appreciated. Who would say no to having millions of people appreciating your work?"