Worldly Roots (Profiles in World Music): Tamar Ilana + Ventanas

by Krlmagi

I talk to Tamar Ilana of Ventanas about inspiration, creativity and the ancient roots of Ventanas' music.

Tamar Ilana’s childhood set her up nicely for a life in music. Her mother's a ethnomusicologist and instilled in her daughter a passion to keep the world’s musical traditions alive and a love for a wide variety of musical forms. She also studied flamenco dance starting at the age of eight. She says, “My music has roots in various traditions. I learned so many songs orally growing up that there’s songs I sing that I don’t remember learning. I just picked them up along the way.”

She tried to move away from music for a while but Ilana says, “Everything else felt fake so I ended up coming back to music.”

Tamar Ilana and Ventanas
Tamar Ilana and Ventanas
Robert Benaroya

One of the major influences on her music comes from the Sephardic Jewish tradition. She explains, “Sephardic music is the music of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. They went to places in the Balkans, Turkey, Greece and the Maghreb. They brought their language with them which is a form of old Spanish that’s also known as Ladino or Judeo-Spanish."

She continues, “The language incorporated different words from the different areas they arrived in after they were expelled from Spain but it’s even understandable if you can speak modern Spanish. They also incorporated local rhythms like 9‘s in the Balkans, 7‘s in Greece and 6/8 wedding rhythms in Morocco.”

Her current project, Ventanas, came to life after she began a musical exchange with Mark Marczyk who now leads The Lemon Bucket Orkestra. Ilana says, “Ventanas really came about when I moved back from to to Seville. Mark and I started teaching each other the  music that we knew and then we brought in one piece of the group at a time. Let’s say that it was all tied to my life’s repertoire.”

The approach that the band takes to making music starts with experimentation. Ilana says, “We’re doing things like playing flamenco on an oud or Sephardic music on a flamenco guitar. We know we can do it, we just have to figure out how exactly it works. We’re starting to write original music too. Each member of the group brings their own musical roots with different traditions and different bases together. We’re seeing what we can create from it.”

Another important part of Ventanas is the dance element. Ilana brings her flamenco dance training to bear and the band has also worked with dancers in other traditions. In the future, she says, they’d like to do more dance collaborations.

Ilana is keen to highlight the skills of her band members. She says, “Our oud player is Demetrios Petsalakis.  He’s an incredible multi-instrumentalist. He plays electric guitar and baglama as well as the oud and he brings his own Greek musical background to the table. Derek Gray is our percussionist. Part of his background comes from India so he brings a whole different feel and sound to the music.”

She continues, “Benjamin Barille is our flamenco guitarist.  He is focused on flamenco but he writes and composes his own music within that tradition. Jessica Hana Deutsch is our violinist and she also does vocals. She he has has an amazing ear, she comes up with great  harmonies and she has perfect pitch. Our double bass player, Justin Gray, is our percussionist’s brother. They’re super tight when they play together. “

One of the challenges that Ilana identifies for the band is touring in Europe. She points out,”In Canada it doesn’t really matter because of our multicultural nature but in Europe, we often get the question of why we do Sephardic music or flamenco when we aren’t from Spain.”

In Canada, the challenge can be getting gigs at smaller events. Ilana says, “Within Canada, there’s a lot of folk music and festival programmers in Canada are sometimes nervous to bring us out to smaller towns because they say the audience isn’t ready but I always tell them that if you don’t bring people in, they won’t be open to it.”

One the other hand, Ilana says that doors are opening in Canada and abroad. She says, “We’ve played and are associated with Mundial Montréal which is Canada's only world music showcase. It opened a lot of doors for us because they present in a lot of musical showcases around the world.”

The future’s looking exciting for Ventanas. Ilana says, “We want to do more touring around the world. We’re working on the original music we’re making so we can have an original album to tour with and then we don’t have to say our music is from anywhere specific other than from ourselves.”

Ilana is also working on a solo project. She explains, “I’m starting a new project called Meegwetch which means ‘thank you’ in Cree. My dad’s family is from Calgary and and is native Cree background so I’m mixing fancy shawl Aboriginal dancing with flamenco and using Afro-Brazilian maracatu percussion. It’s an exciting project for everyone involved.”

Music has been an essential life path for Ilana.  She says, “This is the only place where I feel like myself and a place where I can decide what to do. I don’t know if it’s too clichéd to say this but when there’s hardships I can turn to music to express them. The passion and inspiration comes from everything and everyone around me.”

For more information on Tamar Ilana & Ventanas, please visit their website here.

This profile is based on an interview conducted via Skype on June 16, 2016.

Updated: 06/20/2016, Krlmagi
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