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Toronto, Ontario, Canada | Established. Jan 01, 2011 | INDIE

Toronto, Ontario, Canada | INDIE
Established on Jan, 2011
Band World Folk




"World music group brings musical collaboration to new level"

By Valerie Hill

KITCHENER — Singer and Flamenco dancer Tamar Ilana had been gone from Canada for less than two years to study music in Seville, Spain, when there was a big shakeup in Toronto, musically speaking.

"All these people I knew in Toronto; Ukrainian, Flamenco, Brazilian, their bands had all come together," said Ilana whose own band Ventanas came out of that spontaneous collaboration. "I was dropped right into it. It was truly amazing."

On Saturday, Ventanas will perform an eclectic mixture of Greek, Turkish, Flamenco and Sephardic music at the Courtyard Studio in Kitchener as part of Neruda Arts world music program.

That original shakeup in the city in 2011 had evolved simply because there were so many musicians, bands and even music schools in Toronto that were operating in isolation, at least until a couple of musicians chatting over dinner one night decided to bring these groups together.

From that very organic expression of music, musicians began to blend their styles, to share their own musical traditions and out of that came the Lemon Bucket Orkestra. The group has grown from a few enthusiastic street buskers to a 15-piece band performing Balkan, Klezmer, Gypsy, party and punk music. Ilana was part of it all, then decided to take the idea a step further, creating Ventanas.

"We do combinations others don't do," she said. "We do more from all over the Mediterranean. It's what I grew up with and it all fits together."

Much of her youth was spent travelling and performing with her mother, ethnomusicologist Dr. Judith R. Cohen.

At only five, instead of humming along to nursery rhymes, Ilana began singing Sephardic, Balkan and medieval music and by eight she was studying Flamenco under Esmeralda Enrique in Toronto.

She has since performed with many groups, including the Flamenco group, Fin De Fiesta, at the Registry Theatre last year and with Ventanas at the Cambridge Mill Race Festival in 2012.

Ventanas' popularity is growing and the Kitchener stop is just part of what will be a cross Canada tour followed by a European tour.

The group's members includes Ilana on vocals, backed by violins as well as a few exotic instruments such as an oud, a stringed instrument commonly used in Arabic music, Flamenco guitar, darbouka (drum) and well as a drum box know as a cajon.

Bringing together so many different styles is a challenge for the musicians but no one ever says 'no it can't be done' she said.

"This is a Balkan tune, why don't we put a Flamenco riff in it," she said. "It doesn't always work. It takes a lot of open mindedness on the part of the musicians. We learn from each other."

The Kitchener concert she said can be summed up as "lyrical and beautiful, maybe music you never heard before or music you have heard played in a whole new context." - The Record

"Preview: Band takes a world of music, and turns it on its head"

EDMONTON - Tamar Ilana will tell you that her global ensemble Ventanas came together three years ago, but the sounds they make really began to take root when she was born, as the child of a globe-trotting ethnomusicologist mom.

“I grew up singing a lot of this stuff with my mother,” explains the Toronto singer, “and a lot of our repertoire comes from the songs I have collected on field trips over my whole life. To me, mixing it all together seems quite normal.”

Her music echoes the sounds she heard first-hand, principally in nations and cultures that border on the Mediterranean Sea and into the Balkans. As an adult she has also lived and studied music and dance in Spain and other parts of Europe.

Various members of the septet bring their own influences into play. Oud virtuoso Demetrios Petsalakis is Greek, guitarist Dennis Duffin lived in Spain for a spell to study flamenco styles, their current percussionist is from South Asia and their violinist draws on Ukrainian influences. Ultimately the group’s arrangements come together in a democratic process.

“We started exchanging tunes and melodies, teaching each other rhythms and songs, taking it from there for the excitement of sharing the music. Over time it’s turned into something beautiful.”

She adds the group has a taste for odd rhythms and time signatures. Their 2013 self-titled debut CD has a lively, exotic sound that’s hard to pin down, but there are a few common threads.

“Every song we choose, we have to love the melody and the rhythm and find it interesting to play. And it’s often something we’ve learned personally from that country. Many are traditional songs that we have re-arranged to change the rhythms a little or add some other element from a different culture that sits well. We have also started to put together a few original songs over the past year.”

Today their shows include songs in Spanish, Turkish, Greek, Serbian, Arabic, French and Ladino (the language of Sephardic Jews, or Jews of Spanish ancestry) among others.

Ilana says that memorizing lyrics in varied tongues feels similar to memorizing scientific terms in biology class. She likes to introduce songs to the audience with a note on the origins or meaning of the tune.

“Like many folk songs they tend to revolve around the life and love, the cycle of life from birth to death. And it seems that a lot of the songs we sing do mention windows and balconies.”

Hence the group’s name Ventanas, which is Spanish for “windows”.

Ilana knows most members of the band from shared experiences around Toronto. A decade ago some of them helped spark an urban folk organization called Fedora Upside Down, geared to people who celebrate music as an everyday part of their cultural background. Other members of the group share crossover membership in groups like the Lemon Bucket Orchestra.

She feels lucky to have travelled and grown up in a city and country which encourages varied musical cultures to sit side by side and intersect.

But it wasn’t always that way.

“I hated it when I was growing up. When I was a kid I said, ‘when I get older, I’m going to work 9 to 5, make lots of money, have a car, move to the suburbs and live a normal life – no more of this travelling or performing’. I did study biology at university for four years and did work 9 to 5 for a few years before I realized I was an impostor in this so-called normal life.”

That’s when she dumped her “normal” career, and went off to Spain, a country she had spent some time living in as a child, to study flamenco music and dance. She spent a few years studying there before returning to Toronto and starting Ventanas. On stage she dances to the extent she can while holding down the vocals and playing frame drum.

Ilana says the group’s diverse talents and material has helped them play a range of venues and festivals, from a Balkan music fest in New York to playing Toronto’s Jewish Music Week.

The size of Ventanas also changes depending on who is available, including dancers. The current touring septet reflects a couple of personnel changes since their beginning and two flamenco dancers from Edmonton will guest with Ventanas on stage for their show at the Artery Tuesday.

While her mother, ethnomusicologist Dr. Judith Cohen, was initially surprised to see her daughter throw away a college career in biology, she’s very proud of Ilana’s musical endeavours.

“The music she (her mother) gathers is still very traditional, but what we do is to take these songs and flip them on their head so there is a bit of a contrast,” says Ilana. - Edmonton Journal

"Tamar Ilana and Ventanas at the Vancouver Folk Fest"

It is no wonder that the music of Tamar Ilana and the Ventanas is eclectic, with influences from around the world. Ilana has not only traveled the world, studying in both Canada and Spain, but performs with a group of talented musicians whose expertise and interests are as wide-ranging as her own. When she and the Ventanas play at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival next weekend, July 18-20, they will offer, as their name suggests, “windows into other lands and cultures.” And, they will have you up dancing.

Born in Toronto, Ilana lived in the heart of the city with her mother, Dr. Judith R. Cohen, an ethnomusicologist and performer specializing in Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) songs. She studied French and graduated high school with a bilingual diploma. “However,” she told the Independent, “I also feel like I grew up in Spain.”

Explained Ilana, “I began accompanying my mother on her field trips when I was 4 (my first trip was to Israel), and then Spain when I was 5. I have had a few homes in Spain over the years. First, Ribadavia, Galicia, where I would roam the castle grounds (now closed to the public) and contemplate the small length of the old graves there, and how short people must have been. Then Hervás, Cáceres, which will forever be ‘mi pueblo.’ When I was 12, I met a family there who took me in as their own and, when my mom would romp all over the peninsula, studying, researching and traveling, I would often stay in Hervás with my ‘family’ there, and join up with my mom for shows. It is in Hervás that I really feel I learned Spanish, grew up a lot, and became a lot of who I am today.”

At 14, Ilana went to Ibiza with her mother, who “was retracing Alan Lomax’s footsteps from 50 years previous.” Since then, Ilana has spent many summers there, she did her third year of university in Barcelona, and studied flamenco in Seville for a year. “So, really, Spain is my other home,” she said.

“My father is part Native Canadian (Cree-Saulteaux), part Romanian and part Scottish. I have not lived with him since I was a baby, but we are close and he has always been a big part of my life. He came to visit me in Barcelona and Seville both times I lived there. He is not a musician but he is a huge supporter of the arts and my life. He says he is my No. 2 fan (my mother being No. 1, hahaha). Both my parents definitely support me as a performer.”

“Science, although I do love it as well, was almost just a form of rebellion from music! But I have now accepted music as who I am.”
Despite being surrounded by music, and performing from a young age, Ilana graduated from University of Toronto with a B.Sc. in biology and worked in the field briefly. “Science, although I do love it as well, was almost just a form of rebellion from music!” she said. “But I have now accepted music as who I am.”

The list of countries to which Ilana has traveled is long. “I used to complain a lot about traveling and performing … and I said that, when I grew up, I wanted to be ‘normal,’ with a house, a car, a 9-5 job. But, I guess, deep down, I always enjoyed the actual singing part. Now, singing, performing and traveling are just so much a part of me that even when I tried to change myself with my biology degree and then working 9-5 for two years in renewable energy, I felt like an imposter. Now, I feel like myself.”

Ilana began her study of flamenco when she was 8, captivated by a performance by Esmeralda Enrique (in Toronto): “I said to my mom, ‘I want to do that,’ and she said, ‘So go talk to her.’ I did, and I began studying dance with her that same year. I have been immersed in the flamenco world ever since.”

When studying in Barcelona in 2007, Ilana did a workshop with Montse Cortés, and “fell in love with flamenco singing.” She said she felt like all the parts of her life were being pulled together.

“Flamenco is everything,” said Ilana. “It is sorrow, it is happiness, it is love, it is death. It is every emotion you could possibly feel all together. It is also technically difficult, which is a good challenge. Flamenco is amazing in that if you speak ‘flamenco,’ you can get on stage with anyone else who speaks ‘flamenco’ and do a whole show without ever speaking to each other in any common tongue.”

Ilana continues to study with Enrique, and sings with her company. She also teaches dancing and singing out of Enrique’s studio, the Academy of Spanish Dance in Toronto.

Though she was working with fantastic people, her mind and soul were on her music and dancing, “what I was going to sing, what I was going to wear, who would be doing the show with me, how to promote it.” So, she left her job, sold her car, left everything she had dreamed of having as a child, and went to Seville.
The path has required courage on more than one occasion. After graduating U of T, she worked as co-campaign coordinator of the Green Energy Act Alliance. Once the act was passed, she was offered a promotion by the nonprofit with which she was working, “but it did not feel right,” said Ilana. Though she was working with fantastic people, her mind and soul were on her music and dancing, “what I was going to sing, what I was going to wear, who would be doing the show with me, how to promote it.” So, she left her job, sold her car, left everything she had dreamed of having as a child, and went to Seville.

“I felt like I was singing flamenco but, really, I felt like I did not know what I was doing, and the only way to know what I was doing would be to go immerse myself in that culture for an extended period of time,” she explained. “It was difficult. The first day at the Fundación Cristina Heeren Escuela de Arte Flamenco was hard – the other singers were so good! Up until then, I had felt like I was a good singer, but that day I felt like I had never sung before in my life! I came home crying. I cried many times at that school – sometimes I was even told I would never be able to sing flamenco because I was not from there! But those hard words actually contributed to the power of flamenco singing, and I began to sing stronger and with more confidence and more knowledge.

“My singing and my understanding of flamenco changed drastically that year (2010-2011), and I returned in 2013 with a Chalmer’s Professional Development Grant to study for another three months. My goal when I first went to Seville was to learn a cante libre (form with no rhythm) and I learned many, which I still sing today, such as ‘Granaína.’”

Although Ashkenazi, Ilana grew up surrounded by Sephardi music and culture, it being her mother’s specialty. “She is a preserver of many old songs that almost no one sings anymore,” said Ilana. “To her, these precious songs are treasures to be guarded dearly.

“I did not grow up religious,” she added, “but we always celebrated the High Holidays with my extended family, and sometimes went to shul. My mother likes going to the synagogue of the Indian Jews here in Toronto sometimes because she is ever interested in different musical cultures and how different communities celebrate, sing and dance according to their customs.

“We often lit candles and sang the prayers on Shabbat, and we traveled to Israel many times as I was growing up…. I recently returned to Israel after many years, this time with Taglit Birthright, and I stayed to visit my cousin and also to play some flamenco in Tel Aviv with friends I had met in Seville.

“Although I am not religious, I feel like the Jewish people are my family, and that there is a common understanding somehow between us all, no matter where we are from in the world. I find this feeling difficult to explain to non-Jews sometimes, but it is a deep feeling I have.”
“Although I am not religious, I feel like the Jewish people are my family, and that there is a common understanding somehow between us all, no matter where we are from in the world. I find this feeling difficult to explain to non-Jews sometimes, but it is a deep feeling I have.”

Before she went to Seville, Ilana was performing with various groups in different projects – a glimpse of her website shows that she still has a host of projects on the go – and, while she was away, these musicians “formed a collective dubbed Fedora Upside-Down (based on the fact that many are buskers, and the idea was to bring folk and world music to the streets to make it more accessible to the general public). It truly felt as though all my worlds had collided, and everyone was just waiting for me to come home and fit right in. And I did!”

From a flamenco rehearsal with Dennis Duffin, Ilana was connected with Mark Marzcyk, leader of Lemon Bucket Orkestra (LBO). The trio was joined by LBO percussionist Jaash Singh and, said Ilana, “We jammed all of summer 2011, in the heart of Fedora Upside-Down, our community and best friends and colleagues. By the time the fall came around, we started being invited to play shows and we called ourselves Ventanas, which means ‘Windows’ in Spanish, after the idea that we are a series of windows into other lands and cultures.”

The only part missing, she said, was an oud player. Singh suggested his friend Demetrios Petsalakis. “He appeared in my kitchen and it was as though he had been there all along!” said Ilana. “We invited him out to our weekend gig … and he showed up and played all the tunes with no charts and barely a rehearsal, just picking them up on the fly. And so, our original quintet was formed.”

Though Ilana dances on some of the pieces, the transition between dancing and singing can be hard, so Ilana invited Ilse Gudiño to join the group, and LBO dancer Stephania Woloshyn also was a guest performer many times. “These are the seven members on our debut self-titled EP,” noted Ilana.

Alexandra Talbot joined when Gudiño had a baby, and now tours with them, and “violinist, composer, friend and Fedora Upside-Down colleague Jessica Hana Deutsch” is also on this tour, as is percussionist Derek Gray.

“Our creative process is always changing,” explained Ilana. “Basically, I am the leader and can make the final call on things. But, since I play with such talented musicians and each one of them knows their styles and cultures so incredibly well, I really just trust their judgment on most things. Mark has a gifted ear for arranging, so especially at the beginning, we would follow his suggestions. Demetrios has a certain ability to compose music that sounds as if it is an old, traditional song, and

Dennis always adds a flamenco feel to it with his voicings and rhythmic changes. Everyone really brings their musical lives to the table and we take it from there. Anyone can suggest a song, teach it, and everyone’s input is heavily taken into consideration before anything is set in stone. Basically, everything is a group decision, and it works surprisingly smoothly.”

The Ventanas’ appearance at the Vancouver Folk Fest is part of a cross-Canada tour and, said Ilana, “Right now, I am planning on going to WOMEX in October to make some important connections and also meet with a few friends there to plan our first European tour. We plan on performing in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Germany in the next year. We might even make it to Greece. WOMEX is in Galicia this year, which will bring me right back to when I was 10 years old and traveling there a lot.”

While Ilana has never been a member of LBO, she has been their guest in various shows, and she has “shared many stages with them, traveled and performed with them.” As it happens, LBO will also be at the Vancouver Folk Fest and, said Ilana, “Ventanas and Lemon Bucket will join forces at VFMF. Come and see how!”

For more about the Ventanas, visit For the full lineup of Folk Fest performers and other information, visit - The Jewish Independent

"New York Music Daily"

Ventanas Bring Their Exhilarating Mashup of Flamenco, Middle Eastern and Ladino Sounds to the Lower East
by delarue

Is there a more enticing way to open an album than with a bristling oud solo? That’s what Toronto band Ventanas do on their new album Arrelumbre – meaning “shine” in Ladino, the Sephardic Jewish dialect, and streaming at Bandcamp. As the song goes along, Dennis Duffin’s flamenco guitar climbs and intertwines with Jessica Hana Deutsch’s violin over a shapeshifting groove as frontwoman Tamar Ilana’s voice sails overhead. All that pretty well capsulizes what you get on the record, conjuring images of dark-haired señors and señoritas passing around a bottle of arak against the backdrop of a blazing bonfire, crackling castanets and twirling dervishes, an enchanting and genre-warping cross-cultural party. The eclectically intense Mediterranean/Romany/Middle Eastern/klezmer acoustic jamband are bringing all this cross-pollinated fun to a free show at Drom on January 15 (actually the wee hours of the 16th) at around half past midnight.

After that first track, the album really gets cooking with the lickety-split Dedo Mili Na Pazar, its eerie Balkan vocal harmonies over a spiky thicket of Demetrios Petsalakis’ baglama lute bolstered by pizzicato violins (that’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra‘s Mark Marczyk on the other one). The title suite of Moroccan dances rises amd then bursts out of Duffin’s elegant flamenco intro in flurries of shivery violin, Ilana’s honeyed vocals providing a tender contrast – and then the band picks it up even further. Then they mash up flamenco and classical Persian balladry.

The well-traveled Balkan folk song Makedonsko Devojce doesn’t bear much resemblance to the cult favorite Black Sea Hotel version, but it’s reinvented all the same, in this case as a mashup of flanemco, Romany guitar jazz and jaunty folk-rock with an incendiary violin solo at the center. The album’s most epic track, Elianto, is a deliciously slinky, misterioso number fueled by Ilana’s low-flame vocals and Petsalakis’ oud.

Libertad has a similarly edgy Middle Easter flavor, blended with flamenco intensity at double the speed. La Sala Del Crimen pairs lustrous violin against Duffin’s elegant fretwork, while Si Te Quiero offers a dusky launching pad for fast-fingered strumming. The gorgeously bittersweet, enigmatic Landarico pairs Ilana’s wounded vocals against an austere wash of strings, then Petsalakis’ oud takes over, ambered and stately. The album winds up with Ven A Mi (Colombianas), a lively blend of flamenco and Romany guitar jazz. Toronto may have earned infamy as home to a broken social scene, but this is the together one: it’s hard to imagine anybody having more fun onstage than this merry band. - Delarue


See link - Mark T

"American Jewish World"

Spanish and Jewish music have similar roots, but often could not be more different. Spanish music is usually very passionate and outspoken, whereas Jewish music is often performed with reservation. Ventanas does an expert job of bridging the gap between these two types of music in their second album, Arrelumbre.Ventanas-Arrelumbre-cover

The seventh track on the album, “Entré en la sala del crimen,” is potentially the most traditionally Jewish-sounding song on the album, while the majority of the others are like hybrids of the two types of music.

The band consists of Tamar Ilana, vocals; Dennis Duffin, flamenco guitar; Alex Talbot, flamenco dance; Demetrios Petsalakis, oud; Jessica Hana Deutsch, violin; Derek Gray, percussion; and Jaash Singh, darbuka and cajon. They also invite special guests to join in on a few songs. — Phil Robin - Phil Robin


Arrelumbre, 2015
, 2013
Fedora Upside-Down Compilation, 2012 - Frog Song
Fedora Upside-Down Compilation, 2011 - La Komida



Ventanas explores both the traditional and the new in their second album, Arrelumbre.

Though they sprang from the same Spanish soil, flamenco singing and Sephardic Jewish song could not be more different. Flamenco singing burns with passion and fury, and performances reach an emotional fever pitch. Sephardic singers let the wry tales in the lyrics speak for themselves with reserved precision.

It is the tension between these two musical forms that fires Ventanas lead singer Tamar Ilana, and this tension is the guiding force behind the band’s second album, Arrelumbre.

“I have given up on purity,” laughs Ilana. “I draw on both the story and the emotion, infusing flamenco feeling into Sephardic stories and vice versa.”

Ilana and her trans-Mediterranean ensemble Ventanas fuse passion and intimate dialogue, embracing the varied instrumental and melodic traditions of North Africa, the Balkans, Turkey and Spain to create fresh interpretations and original songs. Oud, baglama, darbuka, and percussive flamenco footwork intertwine with surprising harmony, joy and yearning, and this unusual musical mix garnered the group two Canadian Folk Music Award nominations in 2014. It shines with a new brightness on Arrelumbre.

“I was raised to believe that we needed to preserve folk songs that might otherwise be lost,” says Ilana. “Ventanas preserves these traditions, while at the same time present them in an exciting way, both sonically and visually. We infuse them with new energy, dance and diverse instrumentation to keep things moving forward.”

This forward motion comes naturally to Ilana, who has lived and breathed the Spain's music from girlhood, travelling with her mother, who is an ethnomusicologist and singer. Ilana and her mother would performed as they went, and sometimes she found herself wishing she could be like other kids. Yet as Ilana gradually came into her own as a musician, singing on stage went from being a childhood chore to a profound joy.

These early adventures have provided the singer with a remarkably deep musical well to draw upon. The repertoire is second nature to Ilana, and includes everything from Original songs (like 'Libertad') to Eastern European folk songs (like ‘Makedonsko Devoiche’). Her two main influences come from her ongoing engagement with the Iberian past: flamenco and the songs of the Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from Spain centuries ago and adapted to new cultures as they migrated to new lands (as heard in album’s title track, ‘Arrelumbre’, a medley of Moroccan Sephardic wedding songs).

Ventanas seamlessly incorporate other musical inspirations into very traditional forms, like the oud and violin that weave into the furious emotion of  ‘La Sala del Crimen.’ Or the flamenco guitar flourishes that grace the Persian classical piece ‘Amed Nesim-i,’ a composition Ilana learned from family friends in Madrid. 

Arrelumbe also features original songs. ‘Libertad’ is one such creation, inspired lyrically by the images of a favorite Sephardic song, yet sparked by musical dialogue with Athens-born oud player Demetrios Petsalakis. Their collaboration is bearing fruit: Petsalakis creates the melodies, while Ilana crafts the lyrics in Spanish or Ladino. Then the band leaps in, expanding and elaborating the arrangements together.

Ventanas braves new ground with Arrelumbre, and the result is a sound unlike anything else you’ll hear this year.

2014 CFMAs for Ventanas: "Best Traditional Singer" and "Best Ensemble" of the Year
2015 CFMAs for Arrelumbre: "Best Traditional Singer" and "Best World Music Group" of the Year

Golden Fest, Brooklyn, 2012
Mundial Montreal, 2013
FMO, Toronto, 2014
APAP NYC, 2016
Pacific Contact, Burnaby BC, 2016

Band Members