Getting his groove on – Hri Neil and Ombudsman Sound

WRITTEN BY JANET DAVIES.

You might say Hri Neil (pronounced Ree) epitomizes the creative rural economy:  energetic, collaborative, diverse and focused on community. Also known as D.J.  Ombudsman, Hri has been dj-ing for 15 years at venues from M.O.C.C.A. (Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art) to the Solstice Festival (OM Reunion Project) to weddings. Since moving to Prince Edward County he’s also held down residencies at local bars and restaurants. His dj’ing company is Ombudsman Sound. His other company is Hri Creative Services where he offers his skills gained from years working in the art world: graphic design, web design and all manner of creative solutions.

“I do a lot of summer weddings and then different kinds of events year round,” he told us. “I play all the top 40 and juke box stuff, of course, but my real passion is more eclectic, world music, global dance music. That’s what I play for personal events or when I donate my time or throw my own party.” He plays the stuff that excites him on his radio show, Global Grooves, with co-host Chris Byrne on County Radio 99.3 Monday nights at 7pm. “It’s a funny time for a dance show,” he laughs. “But there’s not much predictable about 99.3 programming! It’s great for me. Monday is not a gig night, so we can do it live talking about music and presenting research and information about artists around the world.”

Hri gets involved in local events. He likes being part of a community. “I do a lot of DJ’ing just for the love,” he says. “Free events, like Food Not Bombs or a little afternoon dance party in Benson Park for everyone from little kids to grandmothers. When I moved to The County there was a core group of maybe 30 people who would come out regularly to my dance nights, but that has changed. There’s more of a hunger now for my kind of music. At The County Canteen I’ll start with lounge oriented music but later in the evening the restaurant becomes more of a bar and young people come in wanting dance music.” Hri’s idea of dance music is unconventional. “I play across genres, anything that makes you feel good, want to move and have a good time. People might only recognize one song of out of five, but they’ll ask me what I’m playing and how they can get a copy.” The Thrill is Gone by B.B.King is a favourite. “It’s a beautiful song, it builds a mood and gets them every time.” Soul and funk and blues, old stuff and new stuff, he makes sure there is something for everyone in the room.

HRI IN THE ART WORLD

When he’s not dj’ing or doing design work with Hri Creative Services, anything from industrial design to editing sound and video, Hri curates art shows, does the occasional pop-up art market and finds ways to promote local artists’ work. “My first job in The County was with Oeno Gallery as a curatorial assistant,” he says. “It was a great place to start. Carlyn Moulton has been instrumental in identifying talented people and giving them the opportunity to move here or, in the case of Chrissie Poitras, to come home. I’d been working in the arts world since I graduated and had got to a place in my career where I was doing independent curating, getting grants and putting on shows in public galleries and artist-run centres. But I was tired of the city, tired of commuting for hours every day. It affects your quality of life. My parents were living in The County and I visited and liked it. New York and Toronto and Montreal are great and exciting but very competitive. There’s a lot of pressure and not much neighbourly collaboration. Collaboration is what I find here. People want to help you do what you’re doing, and you can help them. There’s a lot of good, creative exchange.”

Hri is no stranger to rural life. “I came here from Toronto but I had only lived there five years. I was born in Montreal, grew up in rural Quebec and have lived all over Canada. Penticton in the Okanagan Valley and Edmonton and then Waskatenau, a little farming community outside of Edmonton. I did most of my high school in North Bay, then university in Montreal. My dad was a professor of education and we moved around a lot and I always preferred small communities to the big ones. There are a lot of things I love about cities, but, you know, The County is acquiring many of them – different foods, different cultures. I believe if you miss something from where you’re from or where you’ve been, you can sort of create it yourself, and I guess that’s part of what I do now.

HRI CREATIVE SERVICES

“I get great pleasure from organizing art shows. It’s a huge amount of work and it doesn’t pay much! But I love it. I’ve organized an annual show for two years, but I’ll be moving to a biennial format. I’ve been doing a rough survey of all the regional contemporary artists, and every year I visit more studios and meet more artists. I think right now there are more artists per capita in The County than anywhere in Canada. It’s not all contemporary art, which is my preference, but I like to see what’s out there.

My first show was sponsored and instigated by Partners in Art out of Toronto. That’s an organization that supports contemporary art and they brought a bus tour to see Kent Monkman’s studio. He suggested they talk to me about other artists here. I know Kent from MOCCA in Toronto, and he’s been very kind to me. Because he’s pretty big in the news right now he was a good draw for my shows. People come to see his work and then they discover the other talent going on here.

PEC Arts Council was a big supporter of the 2017 show above Books and Company that ran for two weeks with about 30 artists and even included a great pop-up dinner, food as art! Chris Byrne did an interesting meal where each course was one colour. We called it Monochrome, and it sold out. Chris is a vegan chef and his partner Tamara is the administrator of the Herbalist Association of Ontario and does a lot of wildcrafting and education in and around the County as a registered herbalist. I do her graphic design, Chris and I do the radio show. It’s an interesting community!

Artists are not all great at promotion or getting their work out there, and I can help. I have experience curating and hanging shows to really work in a space. I try not to charge much commission because I know it’s hard for artists to make a living. I charge a fair rate and break even and so far so good. About 1,200 people attended the Books and Company show, we sold out the dinner and had a night of contemporary music by local musicians, lots of synthesizers. It was a huge logistical task for a two-week event which is why I’m going to a biennial format.

On a smaller scale, I do art placement at places like The Vic Café, changing the art every month to give exposure to local artists, but my main focus is dj’ing and graphic design. I’m doing a lot of web design and logo design, which I love.

Moving to The County was a good move for me, but there are challenges. As this place gets more popular it’s harder to find places to rent, and rents have gone up considerably in seven years. I can’t complain because it’s happening because people like me are coming here! I am lucky to have a great rental home in Cherry Valley, but we got it through knowing people. Good properties are not always advertised, there is a lot of word of mouth. So my advice is talk to people, talk to real estate people, get to know people. It’s the best way to find work, too. The more people you meet, the more opportunities you hear about. (Check out the new Available Rent Listings)

There are jobs here, but you have to be humble and flexible and do whatever it takes to get a start. I worked at the video store for two years and loved it! It was an excellent way to meet people. Being friendly and getting to know people works to your benefit. You can’t be too proud to work a regular job alongside the work you want to focus on long term.

Most of the creative people I know have either come here willing to semi-retire or work part time, or they are young and have a little money saved up and want to go into business for themselves. The County is a great place if you have a vision for your own business. You can make your own niche. If you can spot something missing in the community, a service you can provide, and you work hard, you can do well.

Other people rely on markets in Toronto, they do their work here and go into the city once or twice a week. You have to make your own path. I wouldn’t advise coming here and job hunting. Find something first, or create it. It’s pretty seasonal, so work hard all summer and hopefully save enough to carry you through winter. Having said that, I see more full-time, skilled positions being advertised now. When I first came, things got really quiet starting late October. It’s still quieter in fall and winter, but now there is activity and energy and things happening year round.

It’s an exciting time in The County, there’s a lot of interest in arts and culture, a lot of people with great ideas and new interesting venues to work with. The other night, Gus’s Restaurant in Picton, which has been here forever, had a comedy troupe working in the back! Arts and culture and night life are evolving and growing. It’s a good time to be involved in The County.

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