He was playing a bright red upright piano in Sir Winston Churchill Square in Edmonton, Alberta, sitting at a piano bench in sweatpants and an oversize navy blue winter coat, when Roslyn Polard walked by. The man was homeless. Shaggy-haired and unshaven, he looked weary and older than his age, which was about 40.
But when he put his hands to the keys and played, his music seemed to crescendo over the cacophony of cars and trucks sloshing through a busy downtown street, as though it were the soundtrack to the city on a cloudy day.
Polard stopped and asked the man if she could record a video. The piano man, Ryan Arcand, agreed.
Soon, more than 12 million people would hear him play as the video was shared around the world.
Arcand died last week in a supportive housing facility for the homeless in Edmonton. His cousin, Chris Yellowbird, said he was found dead on Sunday, but he did not know the cause of death. Arcand was 46.
Remembered as Edmonton’s “Piano Man,” Arcand and his music have been celebrated all over again as his family, community and beyond mourn him. Yellowbird told The Washington Post that Arcand found an escape in his piano music from the hard life he had led.
“Reality kind of disappeared for a bit,” Yellowbird said. “His music was always really sad, but maybe that explains why his music was so moving. He’s the epitome of a diamond in the rough. It’s like that Tupac quote: a rose that grew from concrete. That’s Ryan. He was this amazing piano player with this crazy story and he was in the street, and yet he could still hold a smile and be so modest and resilient. He was that rose that grew from the concrete.”
Arcand became something of a local celebrity after Polard posted the video on YouTube and Facebook in October 2014. The song he was playing was called “The Beginning.” He said he composed it himself.
With so much interest in Arcand’s story, Polard used the viral video to raise enough money to purchase him a piano, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported. They put it in the lobby of the facility where he ultimately lived, and sometimes he played at a local church.
“Music … it becomes a part of you,” Arcand told the CBC, which went looking for him after the video was posted. “Like you’re born with it.”
For Arcand, the year his music was heard across the world was a bright spot after years of walking through “the fire and the shadows of life,” as his aunt described it to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network in 2014.
From a young age, Arcand had a tough life, Yellowbird said. Alcoholism and addiction had claimed lives in their family, he said, and at times it seemed that just when the family had healed from one tragedy, another presented itself.
But they always had music, said Yellowbird, who became a hip-hop musician. It came not from lessons but rather naturally. Their family — which is part of the Cree tribe in Canada, one of the largest First Nations in North America — just picked it up.
Arcand, who is from the Alexander First Nation, was taken from his parents by social workers when he was 4 and grew up in foster homes, he told various news outlets.
It was in the basement of one of these homes that he discovered the piano: “It was as though we were meant for each other,” Arcand told the CBC. And after Yellowbird’s father bought him one at a garage sale, Arcand, nine years older than him, became his piano mentor.
Yellowbird said that at one point Arcand was released from foster care into his father’s custody, and that the cousins tried to get together as often as they could. But then Arcand’s father died in 1991, when Arcand was barely 20, Yellowbird said, and he turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the loss.
Arcand told the Edmonton Journal that he once had a wife and a daughter but lost them, too, after they died in a car accident.
“I didn’t know how to feel,” he told the news outlet. “I didn’t know how to think. I quit my job, I quit everything.”
Yellowbird said that Arcand lived for a time with his grandmother. She had been the rock of the family, Yellowbird said. But then she, too, died in 2003. He was without a home.
“He just kind of faded away into the streets,” Yellowbird said, “and unfortunately he got so used to that lifestyle, I just don’t think he knew how to heal.”
Polard’s 2014 viral video seemed to offer a glimmer of hope for Arcand. He gave various interviews to outlets across Canada. More people wanted to film him. He had found an audience for his slow, sorrowful ballads.
Brandi Morin, a reporter from the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, even captured the moment when Arcand, who had been estranged from his mother for years, decided to give her a call and tell her about how his music had reached new heights.
“Did you see me on YouTube?” he asked her. “I love you, Mom. I made it.”
He told her about the song for which he was famous, “The Beginning.” He apologized for his past, which included jail time for petty offenses, and said this time he really did hope for a new beginning.
But a year and a half later, in February 2016, Morin caught up with Arcand again. He was not doing well. He reeked of alcohol, she reported, and had not played the piano in a month. He said he had cycled through jail again as well as the hospital, for his anxiety. The local church where he sometimes went did not allow him there anymore because of his intoxication.
“I don’t know what to do anymore,” he told Morin. “It’s a broken dream,” he said of his music. “A dream that could’ve been. There’s no more hope out there for me, to be honest.”
Yellowbird said he did not know the cause of Arcand’s death. But his family’s spiritual beliefs have taught him that sometimes, people get overwhelmed. They just choose when to go.
“We believe he was just tired,” Yellowbird said. “He just wanted to go home.”
Yellowbird said the family will be holding a traditional burial for Arcand. They will have a big feast to celebrate him, light a sacred fire that will burn through the night, and listen to his music.
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