Nina Benlolo recalls the last time she saw her brother-in-law, Sy Benlolo, a professional guitarist who was leaving for one of his routine trips to Mexico where he was booked to play a few gigs at local clubs.
“We were like, ‘OK, Sy, see you later. Be safe. See you in two weeks.’ And then we got a crazy call on a Friday night.”
The 40-year-old musician, who had carved out a career for himself playing guitar alongside some of the worlds best-known DJs including Paul Oakenfold and Tiesto, unexpectedly died in April.
“He fell sick in Acapulco, and unfortunately he passed away from some of the medication they gave him. It gave him an anaphylactic reaction,” Benlolo said.
In the four months since he died, hundreds of his friends and family have been mourning the loss of a man many described as larger than life, loving, ambitious, talented – and always flashing an infectious smile.
Marc Saltzman, Sy’s cousin and close friend, said he hopes an upcoming benefit concert in his honour will help the people who loved him switch their focus from grieving a loss to celebrating a life lived to the fullest.
On Sept. 12, Saltzman, Benlolo and a number of Sy’s family members and friends, will be presenting a benefit concert called Sylebration. The event, to be held at On The Rox in Vaughan, Ont., will honour Sy and his two greatest passions: music and children.
Although Sy didn’t have children of his own, Benlolo said she considered him a second father to her five children.
Saltzman also saw first-hand the love his cousin had for children and treasured the bond his three kids developed with him.
“He was an amazing cousin to my little guys who adored him. Whenever Sy came over, they freaked out,” he said.
“Sy’s passion were kids and music,” Benlolo said. “In his family, he has a disabled little girl, his cousin, and when Sy was in town, he would go and play music for her because that’s what she would respond to.
“That’s the kind of guy Sy was. He was the most loving guy. He always had a smile on his face, always eager to help people and he really helped her. She really responded to him.”
So when Benlolo learned about the music therapy program at the Hospital for Sick Children, she knew Sy would have approved.The program enables music therapists to connect with patients and families who have difficulty coping with their situation, or have difficulty communicating via other outlets.
“It was so fitting that this is where the money would go to,” she said.
Benlolo said the goal for this event is to raise $50,000, and with about a month to go until the big day, they’re already 60 per cent of the way there.
“When people hear about the event, people are eager to help,” she said.
“Sy was a really popular guy. I always knew he was a well-liked guy, but it was after he died that we realized how well-liked he was and how many friends he had. The attendance at his funeral was record-breaking.”
Although Saltzman and Sy “grew up like brothers since we were old enough to walk,” it wasn’t until their early teens that they started playing music together.
They formed a rock band called Remedy. Sy, who was a diehard Kiss fan and was inspired by Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley, filled the role as Remedy’s guitarist, while Saltzman played drums and managed the band. Remedy thrived for years, playing regularly at clubs. At the height of their musical careers, they opened for the Barenaked Ladies, the Tragically Hip, the Goo Goo Dolls and Our Lady Peace.
More than a decade after Remedy was founded, Saltzman decided to quit the band to pursue a career in technology.
The remaining band members went their separate ways, and although Sy tried his hand at joining the family business for a few years, he never fully gave up on his dream to become a rock star.
“In the late ’90s he would frequent the club scene and he saw that DJs were becoming a crazy phenomenon,” Benlolo said.
“He thought, what would make these DJs way more exciting, in his opinion, is if he could incorporate his guitar playing with the DJs,” she said, adding that club owners bought into his vision and Sy was able to forge a successful career playing under his stage name, Sy Sylver.
“Nothing was rehearsed – he would just go up there and do his thing.”
“He was more than a guitarist,” Saltzman said. “If you’ve ever seen him live as Sy Sylver, he played without his shirt – he was cut. He played behind his neck… he played with his teeth. He was a showman. He was a performer.
“And when he wasn’t on stage, he was taking out Nina’s five kids as if they were his own.”
Saltzman hopes the benefit concert next month will shine a light on a life that was cut much too short.
“I’m looking forward to raising money for a good cause in Sy’s name and I’m looking forward to seeing family and friends come together, not to mourn this time, but to celebrate,” Saltzman said.
The benefit concert will feature music from Remedy and Nina Benlolo’s 14-year-old son, Justin, will be filling in for Sy as guitarist. The Gardens will also perform, along with DJs, female singers and percussionists Sy performed with over the years.
“I’m happy Remedy is going to be playing again,” Saltzman said. “These were songs that meant something to Sy whether they’re covers or originals.”
The organizers of the benefit even sent a letter to the members of Kiss to ask if they would acknowledge the event in whatever way they choose, perhaps by sending in signed memorabilia for an auction, or a video greeting.
Saltzman said he hopes wherever his cousin is, he’ll be at the event in spirit and realize that he did become the rock star he always wanted to be.
“Everything he accomplished from his songwriting to the impact he had on people, to the point where about 1,500 people showed up at his funeral – he didn’t realize that he was already a rock star,” he said.
“He did more in 40 years than most people do in a lifetime.”
For more information about the benefit, visit www.sylebration.com.