Over the span of his 20-year career, Pavlo, the internationally renowned, award-winning recording artist, performer and songwriter, has released 10 albums of his own music, plus two collaborative projects, including 2015’s Guitarradas with Remigio Pereira of The Tenors, and 2009’s Trifecta with fellow guitar masters Rik Emmett and Oscar Lopez.
Born in Toronto to Greek parents, Pavlo has made a name for himself by offering a musical amalgam he simply calls “Mediterranean music” – a blend of Greek, flamenco, Latin, Middle-Eastern and even Balkan flavours, wrapped in contemporary pop. His music has taken him all around the world. Along the way he’s performed for royalty and worked and toured with artists such as José Feliciano, Jon Secada, Olivia Newton-John and The Tenors.
But when he was starting out, he was told his music wouldn’t get him anywhere. Record labels told him his music was too “ethnic.” He was told instrumental music wouldn’t draw an audience or sell enough CDs. But Pavlo stuck to his guns because there was something else he’d been told. It was the advice his father gave him many years ago. He told him, “Have the courage to do what you love, and the drive to do it well.” That advice has been the constant star he’s steered by, and now it’s guided him back to his ancestral home.
“All I did was play guitar all day and all night. My mother thought I was nuts.”
His latest album, Live in Kastoria, captures Pavlo’s performance in the town in northern Greece from which his parents emigrated to Canada. A companion DVD documents the journey back to his familial home, and presents Pavlo and his band performing under the stars at a small amphitheatre nestled in the hills overlooking the town and Lake Orestiada. There’s also a television concert special – his second – that has aired across America on PBS.
The 46-year-old guitarist and songwriter grew up in Toronto’s heavily Greek-populated Danforth neighbourhood (he’s since dropped his family name, Simtikidis, for obvious showbiz reasons). He first picked up a nylon-string guitar at the age of 10, and that was it. “Everything else went out the window; my whole life went out the window,” he recalls. “All I did was play guitar all day and all night. My mother thought I was nuts.”
The fledgling guitarist’s repertoire certainly included the Greek music that he was hearing around the house, but he soaked up other sounds as well; His father loved the contemporary music they were hearing on the radio.
“He loved Neil Young, he loved Gordon Lightfoot, he loved songwriters like Elton John and Billy Joel,” Pavlo says, “which is kind of odd for a Greek father. So I would grow up listening to that stuff at the same time. But he loved guitar specifically, so he’d play José Feliciano in the house, and he’d play Paco de Lucia.”
He also credits his hometown’s diversity and the variety of music genres on tap for shaping the hybrid nature of his music.
“I think it’s because I was born in Canada, more specifically born in Toronto, that I do what I do,” says Pavlo. “I would wake up one day and go see [flamenco guitarist] Sabicas from Spain; the next day I’d go see Sting or Yngwie Malmsteen or Paco de Lucia. In Toronto, you could see a different artist every single day in a completely different category, and that surely influenced me in the way that I play, the way that I light [my shows], the way that I perform, my songwriting – all that stuff.”
But after more than two decades performing over 150 shows a year around the world, there must be more than a father’s words to keep him inspired and to keep going out on that stage every night.
“At the heart of it, I love to play. I love to play guitar,” he says. But it’s more than that. His joy in playing music is inextricably tied to his songwriting. “I have co-written dozens of songs with people, but for the most part, the music that ends up on my albums, it’s usually songs I’ve written by myself. So when I go out into the world, every night I’m playing my music. I’m so personally connected to every note that I’ve ever written in my music that when I play it live, it means something to me.”
For the next 12 to 18 months, he’ll be playing his Mediterranean music to people around the globe in places like Japan, Korea, Germany, Greece, Mexico and, of course, North America. But there’s still one noteworthy country he hasn’t played.
“Ironically, Spain!” he says, laughing. “I’ve never played Spain, and I’d love to, because it’s a guitar-loving country, right? I’d love to show them what I do.”
And if the Spaniards are anything like the folks in Greece or Mexico or Singapore or North Dakota who fill venues when Pavlo plays, they’ll make him one of their own, too.