Chamberfest: Maryem Tollar brews a special blend of world music

Al-Qahwa is Ernie Tollar, Maryem Tollar, Demetri Petsalakis and Naghmeh Fahrahmand.

Maryem Hassan Tollar spent much of her youth running away from the strict Muslim tradition in her family home.

“I was born in Egypt and we came to Canada in 1969 when I was one. We went to Halifax. We were the second Egyptian family there.”

She remembers it was tough going.

“People would tell my siblings and me that we weren’t real Canadians. All we wanted to do is fit in. I actually stayed as far away from my heritage as I could.”

She loved singing but preferred the folk songs that she learned at school.

“As a teenager and all through university I was performing pop and folk music.”

She returned to Arabic music through her brother Ahmed Hassan, who was 13 years older. He was a composer for modern dance and was married to the Canadian dancer/choreographer Peggy Baker until he passed away from multiple sclerosis.

“He was commissioned to do a piece for Dancemakers that needed an Arabic singer. He didn’t know one of those, but he knew I spoke Arabic and he knew I could sing.

“He said, ‘If you take care of the singing lessons, I’ll give you this amazing gig and you’ll get to tour Europe’. That was the first really professional thing that I had been offered.”

That’s how she started studying Arabic music.

“It was a backward way to return to my heritage but it gave me a way in.

“I am from a pretty strict Muslim household. I had only brothers and felt that everything was unfair. My brothers would have girlfriends, not even Muslim girlfriends. They could go out after dark. They could do what they wanted and I wasn’t allowed to do anything. So I totally rebelled from my background, my religion and my culture.

“The music gave me a way to connect with something that was beautiful.”

After a time she went to Syria in 1996 “because I got so into the music.”

She spent two months studying Sufi devotional love songs, a specific kind of music that started in Muslim Andalusia. When the Muslims and Jews were kicked out of Spain in 1492, Sufi music travelled across North Africa and into the Middle East including Syria. Tollar studied in Aleppo. Today she is trying to find out what has happened to her teachers in the civil war, but no luck so far.

Arabic music has a unique sound based on quarter tones. When she arrived in Syria, she couldn’t hear the nuances of these quarter tones. It took about a month to start really hearing the differences and it took a lot of time to be able to reproduce the sound.

When she returned her love for the music grew. She continued to study and she also started to perform. She became recognized as an Arabic music specialist.

“The funny thing is because I grew up here singing non-Arabic music, Arab people, when they hear my voice, it doesn’t sound traditional to them.”

She also sings in many languages all of which helps her involvement in all sorts of different projects, one of which is her own Al-Qahwa, which she formed with her husband Ernie Tollar. The ensemble will play at Chamberfest on Aug. 5 in the Ottawa Art Gallery.

Despite investigating Arabic culture, Maryem hasn’t returned to Islam.

“I got married to a musician I met in Toronto who is not Muslim. We have three children. I don’t want to put labels on my kids or myself that might separate me from other people. In the end I feel like we are all human.”

She has reconciled with her father but it was a struggle.

“When I first got married, my father didn’t accept it. He didn’t come to the wedding and he wouldn’t talk to my husband. My mother accepted Ernie and my parents had to agree to disagree, but it was extremely stressful for them.”

Her father’s mind changed when a friend, on his death bed, urged him to “Make peace with your daughter.” He did and he made peace with Ernie too.

Al-Qahwa stands means coffee or coffeehouse in Arabic. The name emerged after Tollar performed in a Tafelmusik production called Tales of Two Cities, which explored, through music, the coffeehouse culture in Leipzig, Germany, and Damascus, Syria, some 300 years ago.

The rest of the band includes Demetri Petsalakis, originally from Greece, who plays the Oud and the Iranian percussionist Naghmeh Fahrahmand.

Al-Qahwa is releasing a CD called Cairo Moon. The group will be joined by the Egyptian violinist Alfred Gamil in Ottawa and also on the CD. The Ottawa concert is a launch of sorts.

The music of Al-Qahwa fuses various musical traditions but it definitely is built out from the Arabic tradition, she said.

This is one of Maryem’s bands including occasional performances with David Buchbinder’s world fusion band Odessa/Havana, which includes Hilario Duran. She sings in Ladino with this ensemble, which won a JUNO in 2104. And she also plays in Turkwaz which fuses Turkish, Arabic and Balkan traditions.

It seems the music world is her oyster.

Chamberfest presents Al-Qahwa
Where: Ottawa Art Gallery
When: Aug. 5 at 10 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.