Venus Talks: A conversation with Tamar Ilana (Part 2)
Venus Talks is a feature by award-winning artist Lenka Lichtenberg, which features in-depth interviews with female musicians from across Canada. Tamar Ilana is the vocalist and dancer behind the groups Ventanas and Meegwetch and the daughter of ethnomusicologist Dr. Judith Cohen.
Lenka: How did you meet your partner, Carlos? Is he a musician?
Tamar: He’s a photographer and a programmer. He works 9 to 5! I met him through the Fedora Upside Down community. He had a Ukrainian roommate. We threw a crazy Ukrainian party at his house, with singers from Kiev. … That’s how we met. He was very involved in the Ukrainian community, and so was I. We were around each other a lot. Then about two and a half years ago, I was coming back from France, where I lived and studied, and we both found ourselves at the end of a rocky relationship. That was the beginning for us as a couple. We are part of the same community, which is nice. I didn’t have to explain much.
Lenka: I think it can be good for artists to be with someone who is artistic, but also has a “real job.”
Tamar: Right. It provides stability for our lives, always to come back to, and [it] gives a different perspective on the world. But don’t forget he is also a photographer, so having an artistic side also brings us together.
Lenka: Now I’d like to talk about the other half of your roots. Your mom is Jewish, whereas I recall your dad is of First Nations heritage?
Tamar: He is status Cree Saultaux from the prairies, from near a reserve in Saskatchewan called Fort Qu’Apelle, where a lot of his family still lives, but he grew up in Edmonton, Alta. His dad is Cree Saultaux. His dad’s parents, my great-grandparents, both went through the residential school system. Through that, their language was taken away, the whole thing.
Lenka: I read on your web site that your dad’s parents were trying to protect him by not speaking their native language.
Tamar: I just found out recently that his dad spoke Cree and Ojibway fluently and was a Pow Wow dancer; but when he had kids, he left that behind. He married a non-Native woman, who was half Romanian and half Scottish. … Her Scottish grandparents looked down upon her Romanian father, and then when she herself married a native man, they were not happy either … and then of course my dad went on to be with a Jew … so I’m a complete mix!
Lenka: It seems to be a story that keeps repeating itself, with the blending of the nation in a truly Canadian fashion!
Tamar: Yes. However, when my dad’s dad married a non-Native woman, they took his status away, and he had to leave the reserve. So my dad’s parents brought him up as a “normal” Christian. In fact, when my uncles talk about my dad, they say, he’s not Native at all, themselves not wanting to have anything to do with it. I think of that family, some six siblings, it was only my dad that has pursued those roots. But it was my mom, actually, who started bringing me to the Native Centre, wanting me to know my roots when I was a kid. Later, when I was nine or 10, my dad started getting more involved with the community.
Lenka: He is a film maker, right?
Tamar: Yes. For instance, he made a documentary with Elder Vern Harper, who recently passed away. I am good friends with his daughter, Cotee Harper, who is my age – a beautiful fancy shawl dancer. We have a project together called Meegwetch. My dad was becoming more involved; he later became a president and a director of the Native Centre for many years. A little older, I went with him to sweat ceremonies. I just found out recently that he went with Elder Vern Harper to schools, such as in Scarborough, that were really hurting with many problems – violence – and had talking circles with the students, guiding them to resolve their problems, by themselves, this way. They’d go to jails too, I believe.
Lenka: There is such an overrepresentation of Native people in incarceration. … Does your dad speak Cree even though he was not brought up in that culture?
Tamar: Not fluently. But I thought I should take Cree. They give classes at the Native Centre. I am thinking of starting in January.
Lenka: That’s fantastic. Looking at your roots and life, you are the embodiment of Canada.
Tamar: You could say so! But I feel as though I don’t know enough about the Indigenous side of my roots – but I am working on it!
Lenka: What a gift you have. That connection. Since my childhood, I’d had a huge attraction, admiration and even felt a bond to the Native people, surely one of the main reasons why I moved to Canada. I visited reserves in B.C., went to ceremonies. … But these days, there is not much one can do culturally with this, other than support as much as possible politically, because in my case, it is not authentic, and there is a deep and passionate conversation these days about cultural exploitation and appropriation. In your case, it is legitimate and authentic. You are so lucky!
Tamar: It comes down to how much you respect the culture, how much you know about it. I’ve resisted applying for Indigenous grants, or, not being 100 per cent Indigenous, even identifying as Indigenous at all – until recently, when I started asking questions and becoming involved in the community. Only once I formed the project Meegwetch, which focuses on Native issues, I felt that it was OK for me to apply for Indigenous art grants, because this project, I feel, contributes to the Native community. Since then, I have been more involved.
Lenka: You do have the experience of creating in arts that are not in your DNA. … like flamenco, Spanish folklore – you and your mom know more about it than most Spaniards, yet these are not your roots …
Tamar: I am also not a Sephardic Jew. We are Ashkenazi … So in everything that I did so far, I am the outsider. Interestingly enough, the Native art is the first time I am doing something that is really in my blood.
Lenka: The one you know the least about.
Tamar: And the one I felt not comfortable identifying with because of that, until recently, out of respect.
Lenka: Where did your Meegwetch (“thank you”) idea come from?
Tamar: I had a vision … of a fancy shawl dance and a flamenco shawl dance side by side. I told my dad about it. He was not in favour at first … probably because of his upbringing – could be the intergenerational trauma, the “don’t be an Indian” sentiment of his past. But then he connected me to Cotee and fully supports [it].
Lenka: Why this project now?
Tamar: It was time for me to connect. There is awareness happening across the country. I will continue developing Meegwetch once Ventanas’ new album is done.
Lenka: I find this so fascinating. But let’s talk about your show now. To me, a lot is expressed visually. It is colourful, dreamy, passionate. How do you create the visual aspect of your art, your costumes?
Tamar: Cool. I like how you see it. I choose the costumes from things I’ve gathered over the years, tell the band what to wear – the palette. I did try to switch to a “modern” look, wear pants for a few months, but it didn’t feel right. I quickly changed back to the long diva gowns. The long, wide skirts are flamenco-based. They give you a lot of room to dance. I think I was particularly influenced by the style of Ibiza (Spain), where we spent many summers due to my mom’s research for Alan Lomax. We still have good friends there that I visit. Long, flowing skirts, a lot of decorations, feathers – which are also part of Indigenous culture. And our new show will be even more visual. There will be multimedia, projections, lighting design and more movement.
Lenka: Do you write songs?
Tamar: On our last album, I wrote lyrics, in Spanish, to four songs that Demetri wrote music for. On the new album, MISTRAL, there are five Ventanas originals with the lyrics that I worked with based on various sources, adapted flamenco and other poems, also in Hebrew, French. We all contribute to the arrangements together as a band. However, I do want to work toward creating more original material.
Lenka: Tell me about your theatre experience. How does that fit between biology and flamenco?
Tamar: That was by fluke! I did some high school theatre – nothing serious though. Then the Lemon Bucket Orkestra was looking for singers for a production they were doing at La Mama Experimental Theatre in New York. I went down there with them in the winter of 2011/2012. We did the play maybe three times. Then I got hired for a couple of plays at that theatre unrelated to the LBO.
Lenka: Acting, singing, dancing?
Tamar: Singing. These are always musical theatre productions; not Broadway-style musicals though. Then I toured for three years with the LBO, with their immersive musical theatre project Counting Sheep in countries such as Germany, Ireland, Scotland, [and] the USA. I also sang a flamenco-Sephardic part for three months in a production of Salome with the Shakespeare Theatre Company with a well-known director, Yaël Farber.
Lenka: What an extensive experience you have there. Let’s enter another realm now. Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person?
Lenka: What does that mean?
Tamar: A lot of my background is in science. To mix it with religion is super interesting. I think that science is just like another religion, really, a way to explain the world. Culturally, I am primarily Jewish. I celebrate holidays with my family, but I am not religious. I like the traditions that I grew up with, though I am not super involved in the Jewish community. My view of how everything is related likely stems from the Indigenous side. My dad’s view is that God is the universe. To me, all religions are the same, whether they are about a god figure, such as the Judaeo-Christian beliefs, or as in native cultures, your ancestors, Mother Earth, the stars. I think of it like that. We are all related, plants, animals, humans … or even man-made materials, stuff made of the earth, water. We humans are so human-focused, everything is related to us, the wars, politics, all about humans. How about the rest of what is our world and our universe? I also tend to see things from the biological point of view. When resources become scarce, fights break out, between animals, or between humans. … I see everything as related, all of us related to everything else in the world.
Lenka: Have you heard of panpsychism? It suggests that at its core, there is no difference really between … anything. That everything has a consciousness, energy, molecules moving, just on different levels, degrees of self-awareness. The table, the tree, the dog, you. From that point of view, there is then no dualism, no separation between the body and the soul. One is the other. Can you relate to that?
Tamar: That does strike a chord. I think I was a tree once. In fact, Tamar means “palm tree” or “date tree,” and Ilana is a sapling. So maybe that is what I am, for now, spiritually speaking.
Lenka: Do you see yourself having family?
Tamar: Yes. Always. Maybe sooner rather than later!
Lenka: Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you’d like to mention?
Tamar: Sure. I want to open up a bit … work with producers that are non-world music … trance, pop, other genres … I want to start combining my knowledge, voice with someone from a completely other world who will only ask, “Are you a good singer? Are the songs good? Do you have rights to the songs? Can we sell it?” None of those other cultural considerations we talked about are even in their vocabulary. It would be so refreshing for me also to sing in English after nearly 30 years of world music in other languages.
Lenka: It would be a fantastic change, if, for once, people actually understood what we are singing!
Tamar: Yes, I am ready!