Venus Talks: a conversation with Tamar Ilana (Part 1)
Venus Talks is a feature by award-winning artist Lenka Lichtenberg, which features in-depth interviews with female musicians from across Canada.
In conversation with the fearless, multi-talented and multilingual leader of Ventanas, we will take a peek beyond the beautiful, colourful stage persona of a woman for whom music, dance and theater are second nature. Ventanas has just showcased in Montreal at Mundial and CINARS, and the band is working towards finishing its latest release, MISTRAL. It was a pleasure to discover there is yet so much more in Tamar’s life, and how it all came to be.
Lenka: We will starts from the start. … Since I am long-time friends with your mom (the musician and ethnomusicology researcher and professor Dr. Judith Cohen), I know that she worked a lot in Spain and Portugal, and that’s what took you to those countries and introduced you to their cultures. I wonder what it was like for a little kid to be taken along to such places. What are your earliest memories regarding that?
Tamar: The first time I travelled overseas I think I was four – to Israel or maybe Madrid. I remember going to a daycare there, and in Istanbul, when I was maybe six. We went to Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, the U.K., Wales …
Lenka: All through your mom’s academic work and research …
Tamar: Yes, she was studying the Sephardic diaspora, places where all the Sephardic Jews live, all around the Mediterranean. They don’t live in Spain. They were expelled in 1492, and now they live in those other places. So that’s where we went – to places like old age homes – and recorded their singing.
Lenka: I recall your mom talking about some places up in the mountains, in remote spots …
Tamar: Oh yes, we went to many remote spots. But you’re probably referring to Portugal. This was a little bit later in my childhood, from 8 to 12 years of age, we were going to Portugal a lot – especially the border between Spain and Portugal, where during the inquisition, Jews would go back and forth, depending on which country was easier to live in at the time. All along the border are these small towns, especially in Portugal, where there are still the pockets of what are known as Crypto Jews. This is less so today. It is now legal to be Jewish there, so we really witnessed the end of an era.
Lenka: These Crypto Jews are also known as Morranos, right?
Tamar: “Morranos” is a semi-derogatory term. It means “pigs.” They don’t eat pork, so they were called that. Most of the Jews that we interviewed when I was a kid, the Crypto Jews, have now emigrated to Israel. We visited one of these families this year. The whole family moved there. To think that this was the survival goal of generations, to survive the inquisition and return to the homeland, to Israel. And they made it back there … I was wondering about that when I was there in May/ June but didn’t have the opportunity to ask. Do they realize they have actually accomplished the dream of their ancestors?
Lenka: The historic dream of millennia, passed down the generations. “Next year in Jerusalem” is such an ancient cry for return, a part of many Jewish prayers … and these people are actually living the fulfilment of that dream …
Tamar: Yes, with their two boys that I’ve known since they were born, going to the yeshiva (a religious school for boys) in Jerusalem. … They were brought up in one of those small mountain villages that I went to with my mom as a kid. Jews and Gypsies lived there side by side, the two marginalized classes.
Lenka: Did they mix with each other at all?
Tamar: No, they would maybe say hello to each other on the street. I saw more of a mutual respect. They wouldn’t bother each other. They wouldn’t tell on each other to the authorities. They’d just be aware of each other and each other’s traditions and mind their own business. I used to hang out with the Gypsy kids in that town. They were curious about me. They’d take me places. I remember once they cut my hair. … I was often running around with the kids of any given village we found ourselves in.
Lenka: Do you remember your mom doing the recordings?
Tamar: Oh yes. I was there for all of that. Recording people. Field work. Research. … First it meant finding the right people. This is before cell phones [or] wi-fi. We’d go to a bar in the village. That’s where a phone would be. From there we would phone the bar in the next village of interest and ask them to go and find the person we needed and let them know that we’re coming. Mom didn’t drive, so we’d take a bus there if there was one. Sometimes we’d need to wait for a bus ‘til the next day or hitchhike. When we came to the next village, we’d go to the bar and ask about the woman we were looking for – usually it was women. They tend to outlive the men and are the “keepers of the songs” – and they’d tell us where to go. We’d come to the house, knock on the door, and they’d be so suspicious at first. But, according to my mom, probably because I was a cute little girl, they’d invite us inside and then mom could do her work. She’d interview them, which for me as a kid was pretty boring. I had to be really quiet. So I read a lot of books, made friendship bracelets, or my mom would tell me, “Go out. Come back in two hours,” so I’d go explore the town. There were these ladies with long black skirts. … I remember distinctly, in one Portuguese town, one woman gave me a huge key to the castle. She said, “Go explore!”
Lenka: That sounds like a dream for a kid! Or something straight out of Harry Potter!
Tamar: Yes, I loved that. I did have a lot of freedom in these towns. Wouldn’t be that way in Toronto. And then we also recorded (ourselves). I remember recording in Madrid, on a medieval album, when I was about five and eight I think. And then there was performing. Always a lot of shows in different places.
Lenka: Right. You started singing with your mom pretty early on …
Tamar: Yes, at four or five I was on stage. … I’d sing one or two songs of hers, then more over time. Sometimes I’d be bored on stage. I’d read a book …
Lenka: While she was performing?
Tamar: I did have to finally get over that and smile on stage … acquire some stage presence …
Lenka: You certainly have acquired a lot of that! At what point did you learn the languages?
Tamar: Over the years, bit by bit.
Lenka: So you never studied Spanish with a book in your hand?
Tamar: I did, later. I studied Portuguese at junior high. I already knew it then, and I did a degree at U of T, a joint double major in biology and Spanish for honours, and I also did Advanced Grammar. But I was already fluent by then.
Lenka: So you speak Spanish and Portuguese.
Tamar: And French. I went to a public French high school here in Toronto, Collège français.
Lenka: How did you feel about those different cultures, music, lifestyle – certainly quite an unusual one for a kid? Did you feel at all a little bit forced, manipulated? Or did you enjoy it and looked forward to these adventures? Did you think it was fun?
Tamar: I think it’s more like I didn’t have a choice. When you’re that little, you just do what you’re told. I didn’t really think about it on another level. My mom is a pretty strong woman. She’d say, “Sit here on stage; learn this; sing this.” When you’re five years old, you listen.
Lenka: But at a later point? Did you ever rebel? Say, “I’m not interested in this?”
Tamar: Oh yes, I tried a lot, already since I was a kid. But it didn’t matter. Mom would just say, “Too bad. … Sing this.” … By the time I was a teenager, it was such a normal part of our life, like going to school … like brushing your teeth. You don’t necessarily like it all the time, but that’s just what you do. And I did start getting paid when I was about 10. … Before then, mom used to pay me in popsicles. They have really great popsicles in Spain. … I wasn’t allowed that much sugar, so this was valued. … Maybe a popsicle for a couple of songs. … and I’d save them up…But then when I was 10, I met a girl who is a jazz singer now. She said, “My dad pays me just to show up. I wouldn’t waste my time otherwise.” … “What? Mom!” So we worked up this whole system, a certain amount to show up, and then per song. Extra if it’s longer, or for a more complicated language.
Lenka: So you got smart there. A little business woman. Pretty impressive at 10!
Tamar: I still complained a lot. All the time.
Lenka: At what point does that change into Tamar wanting to do this on her own?
Tamar: When I was around 20. The rebellion you asked about was really the fact that I did not go and study music then. I thought I’m going to be a scientist, have a normal life. I took biology.
Lenka: Would your mom see that as rebellion? Would she even want you to have a career in performing arts, in music?
Tamar: Well, she was surprised when I decided that I was going to perform, saying, “How come? You always complained so much. … But now it is what I know best, and what I enjoy the most.
Lenka: Well, this is what makes you unique. So many different strands and aspects of what you do.
Tamar: Yes, and it is what I’m most comfortable doing. And I do love it. I grew up on stage. I feel more comfortable on the stage than I do let’s say, talking to people, before or after the show. Then I may feel a bit awkward. I’m drained, I just gave everything on the stage, and talking afterwards, it can be really difficult, as I’m sure you know. On the stage I feel at home. It’s an easy place for me to be.
Lenka: So tell me in more detail how you got from biology to where you are now.
Tamar: I studied at University of Toronto from 18 to 22. After that, I worked for two years 9 to 5 and had a normal life.… ca r… worked for a renewable energy company, lobbied for them and helped pass the Green Energy Act … But then it started feeling fake for me, the meetings, the 9-5 lifestyle. I was losing interest. The people were all amazing. It’s green energy, something that I believe in, but even so.
Lenka: Which company was that?
Tamar: It does not exist anymore. Community Power Fund. We were giving grants to communities in Ontario who were doing renewable energy. I was co-ordinating the campaigns with some amazing organizations, such as the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, Greenpeace … with people like Mike Layton, who is now my city councillor, which is pretty awesome. But it felt fake, and I felt it was not my calling. Ironically, I realized this when I was offered a raise and a new position. So I left, sold my car, and moved to Seville (Spain). There, I studied flamenco full-time for a year at a famous school called Fundación Cristina Heeren Escuela de Arte Flamenco.
Lenka: Wasn’t there also an episode with horses? I remember some pictures …
Tamar: Oh yes. That would have been at the horseback camp Circle R. Ranch. … I went there every summer since the age of 11, till 18 or 19. Then I was a counsellor there. I did not go back for 15 years, but I went back briefly this past summer, because they reached out to alumni looking for staff.
Lenka: Tamar, this is a great year for you, reconnecting with many important aspects of your earlier life.
Tamar: Every year is great. … When I came back to Toronto from Seville, I decided to dedicate myself full-time to music … accepting my destiny. This was around the age of 25.
Lenka: Like the biblical story of Jonah and the Big Fish, when he finally calls out, OK, God, you made your point, I can see I have no choice and what I must do.
Tamar: Right. I told myself, “Fine. This is what my life needs to be. And I did more training at the RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music) to touch up on my theory, in France for a year and a half to study at a vocal academy, and vocal training with different teachers around the city (Toronto).
Lenka: How did you come up with the idea of flamenco?
Tamar: I’ve been doing it since I was about seven. I saw Esmeralda Enrique dance here in Toronto, and I just wanted to do it. I didn’t associate it with Spain for many years. The villages I visited with my mom, they were not in the South. They had Spanish and Portuguese folklore, but nothing to do with flamenco. Only eventually it struck me, this is something that I can put together: flamenco and singing Spanish. One plus one. It all fits, but the connection just wasn’t obvious to me until later.
Lenka: When did you decide to put all these skills and loves of yours together, your languages, music, dancing, and start the Ventanas band?
Tamar: In 2011, when I returned from Seville. There was a movement happening in Toronto called Fedora Upside Down. I watched it develop online from afar and heard about it from various people. It created a community and a networking platform across the city. We now all know each other. We collaborate, support each other. Before, there were different niches that were super isolated: Ukrainian, singer-songwriter, Brazilian, flamenco, jazz, art, photography – all sorts of different cultures and art forms. Here they all merged together. We had weekly meetings, festivals, lots of activities. … I had a mailing list of about a hundred people that were the core. Today, the collaborations and relationships still exist, even though FUD does not. This is the case not only all across the city, but also in other countries. So when you travel somewhere, like Brazil, there are those that were involved, and the artistic connections still strongly exist. So, I was watching this developing from afar, and there were many people involved that I knew, that I’d worked with. Like Maracatu, Afro-Brazilian percussion and voice. I’ve been playing that for some 12-13 years here in Toronto. I saw that becoming a part of FUD; I saw the flamenco community getting involved; I saw the Lemon Bucket and the Ukrainian community involved. I knew some of their members. I saw so many friends and colleagues from so many different paths of my life that were all in the same photo, same picture – literally. That’s when I felt, “I want to come home,” and I did. That community welcomed me with open arms. I felt like I stepped right into that picture. Then I accepted that this was my place. That’s where all my people are.
Lenka: And Ventanas? How did that come about?
Tamar: I formed the group over a conversation with Mark Marczyk from Lemon Bucket. Everyone was saying, “You have to meet Mark,” so I went to his house. He lived in the so-called Owl’s Nest, an artist hub in an alley off Landsdowne. I told him I wanted to make a group that would include Balkan and Sephardic music, and flamenco – and he said, “Teach me a song. Let’s do it now!”
Lenka: I didn’t know Mark was in your band.
Tamar: Yes. The first generation, really the first one in the band. We started exchanging the repertoire, and off it went. The timing was right. It would never happen like this now. We are all so busy. Mark [is] married with a kid, on tour a lot, and I have so many projects on the go. Nobody has time. But at that time, we’d spend many days, all day from eight in the morning, just working the repertoire; then Dennis (Duffin) came in, a flamenco guitarist, then Jaash S., percussionist, so that was the original quartet. We kept rehearsing, playing somewhere every day, developing the repertoire. Then Jaash brought in Demetri (Petsalakis), Athens-born oud player – such a perfect fit, as I was looking for someone from Greece or Turkey that would know the repertoire and the styles. That quintet existed for quite a while.
Lenka: When did (the violinist) Jessica (Hanna Deutsch) come in?
Tamar: About two years later; Mark and Jaash were getting too busy with Lemon Bucket. They still play with me on occasion, especially Jaash, but now we’ve had Jess on violin for five years, Derek (Gray) for about four years (on percussion), and his brother Justin (Gray) came in on bass three year ago.
Lenka: So the Ventanas line-up has changed over time.
Tamar: Yes. Over the years. We had Alex, a dancer, for a while. She moved to Mexico and grows cacao now in a forest in Mexico. When Dennis left, who was on both our first records, Ben (Barrile), a beautiful player and a composer whom I had collaborated with over the years, stepped right in and stayed … But we’ve had the same sextet now for just over three years, and it feels pretty solid.