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Multi-faceted Toronto artist Tamar Ilana embraces the world—musically, linguistically, and with her flamenco footwork

Tamar Ilana
Tamar Ilana has been absorbing international musical influences since childhood. Photo by Carlos Gárate.

Singer and flamenco dancer Tamar Ilana describes herself as an “open book”. In a Zoom interview with the Toronto Spark, she speaks freely about her global musical influences, unconventional upbringing, love of flamenco, multilingual singing, and ancestral history of oppression.

In fact, the Toronto-born artist marvels that she’s alive, given what her ancestors endured.

“That means all those people that were persecuted—Jews, Gypsies, Indigenous—survived,” Ilana says. “I’m the result of survival of these people. Wow!”

She then discloses that she’s currently in the process for applying for an Indian status card under the federal Indian Act. As a result, she’s had to investigate her family tree.

“This week, I’m looking into all my great-grandparents and where they were all born,” she says. “It’s pretty wild—like Belarus, like Romania, and one was born in Scotland. Two were born in Saskatchewan.”

Tamar Ilana & Ventanas have been nominated for four Canadian Folk Music Awards—two for best traditional singer and two for best ensemble. On Saturday (February 3), they’ll perform at the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre in Vancouver.

“Come listen to the music! I’ll be dancing flamenco,” Ilana says. ‘Everyone loves a red dress.”

Watch Tamar Ilana perform the Moroccan Sephardic song “Toward the Light”.

Ilana shares complicated family history

On her Instagram feed, Ilana describes herself as “Jewish Saulteaux-Cree”.

She  says that one Indigenous great-grandfather was sent to a church-run residential school in Canada. Another great-grandfather was Roma from Romania. In this region, so-called “Gypsy” people were enslaved for nearly 500 years up until the mid-18th century.

Meanwhile, modern-day Belarus was once part of the Pale of Settlement, which included Lithuania, Moldova, and much of Ukraine and Poland. From 1791 to 1917 in the former Russian Empire, Jewish people were forced to live there and endured deadly pogroms. In the Nazi era, Jewish residents were hunted down and executed.

Ilana’s musical influences are as global as her heritage. Growing up, she travelled with her ethnomusicologist mother, Judith Cohen, to several countries.

“Her specialties lie in Sephardic music and medieval music, and Sephardic dance, which is basically all over the Mediterranean,” Ilana says.

In medieval times, there were sizeable Jewish populations in what are now the countries of Greece, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Spain, and Portugal. According to Ilana, the rhythms and melodies from those regions were all intertwined—and even incorporated Balkan influences. Moreover, the music often shared the same 7/8s and 9/8s rhythms.

“The instruments were the same—the oud and the darbuka,” she says.

Tamar Ilana performs the Romanian Roma song “Tutti Fruiti”.

Flamenco roots run deep

Ilana reveals that she has been singing and dancing flamenco since she was about seven years old. She lived for several years in Spain. About 10 yeas ago, she attended a prestigious flamenco academy in Seville.

Over the years, music scholars have written extensively about Spanish, Arabic, Jewish, and Roma influences in flamenco music. However, in her flamenco history and theory classes, she learned that this artform also has Celtic, African, and South American roots.

“Now, of course, jazz and classical and pop music—everything—gets infused to it,” Ilana says. “I think it’s because everything worlds together. Everything works. Give me anybody in the world—any musician, any language, any culture—and we’ll be able to work together.”

The band that accompanies her, the Ventanas, also bring diverse influences to the music. Ilana notes that the flamenco guitarist, Benjamin Barrile, is half-Italian and half Franco-Ontarian, and grew up playing flamenco. The oud player, Demetrios Pesalakis, traces his roots back to Greece.

“The percussionist (Matias Recharte) is from Peru,” she adds. “He plays flamenco because his wife used to be a flamenco dancer.”

This leads to an obvious question: what is it about flamenco that speaks to Ilana?

“First of all, it’s complicated—and I like that,” she replies. “I like math and it has a lot of math.”

At the same time, there’s a great deal of emotion in flamenco music, singing, and dancing. Performers can bring everything to the stage.

“You can really transmit anything you’re feeling,” she says. “You can transmit happiness, sadness, anger; it all fits and you can give it everything you have.”

In 2018, Tamar Ilana performed with Roma violist Lache Cercel in Vancouver.

Ilana sings in many languages

In addition, flamenco is “super improvisational”, according to Ilana. Performers must be ready for anything. In fact, she insists that she has all the tools to go on-stage with any flamenco musician anywhere in the world with no rehearsal.

Furthermore, Ilana estimates that that she has sung music in 20 to 22 different languages. She speaks English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

“We say that flamenco is a way of life,” she declares. “It’s not just when you are on-stage. It is how you live.”

There’s currently a nativist backlash in many countries against the cosmopolitan, global perspective that Ilana embodies. Pancouver asks what goes through her mind as she witnesses the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish sentiments in modern times.

She acknowledges that she thinks about this all the time. Simply by performing their music, she and her bandmates are offering their response.

“I don’t know if that’s oversimplifying,” Ilana says. “The fact that we’re just doing it in the face of all of it is an act of resistance.”

Watch a medley of Tamar Ilana’s performances.

The Chutzpah! Festival and Caravan World Rhythms will present Tamar Ilana & Ventanas at 8 p.m. on Saturday (February 3) at the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit the Chutzpah! website. Follow Tamar Ilana on Instagram @tamarilana.

Visit the Toronto Spark website to learn more about arts and culture.


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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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