Tamar Ilana defies easy categorization. The Toronto-born singer’s voice is as fierce and powerful as it is delicate and ornamental, and she is as comfortable enchanting heart-wrenching flamenco arrangements in Spanish as she is breathing mournful Sephardic love songs, or singing playful Balkan party tunes. With her Canadian Folk Music Award-nominated ensemble Ventanas, Ilana skips effortlessly from one genre to the next, and in her original compositions blends these diverse influences with a mastery that makes their synthesis sound like the most natural thing in the world.
It’s not a stretch to say that Ilana was almost born singing. When not attending school in the heart of multicultural Toronto, Ilana spent her childhood travelling Europe, Morocco and Israel with her Ethnomusicologist mother Dr. Judith Cohen, learning musical traditions spanning two continents while becoming fluent in French, Spanish and Portuguese. By the time she was five, Ilana was performing Sephardic, Judeo-Spanish (Ladino), Balkan and Medieval music in multiple languages.
Also an in-demand dancer, Ilana began her study of flamenco dance at the age of eight, after being captivated by a performance by Esmeralda Enrique in Toronto, and has been immersed in the world of flamenco ever since. Though first drawn to the art form as a dancer, in 2007 Ilana began studying cante — flamenco singing — and realized it was the outlet she had been searching for all of her life.
“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 means it offers an endless challenge.”
After graduating from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, Ilana moved to Seville, Spain to study cante full-time at the prestigious Fundación Cristina Heeren Escuela de Arte Flamenco. She returned to Seville in 2013 with the help of Chalmers Professional Development Grant from the Ontario Arts Council.
In Toronto, Ilana’s diverse musical experience makes her a coveted performer across cultural genres. She has toured with the Juno-nominated Balkan punk-klezmer band Lemon Bucket Orkestra and performed with Afro-Brazilian song and drum ensemble Maracatu Baque de Bamba, as well as the Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company, the Jorge Miguel Flamenco Ensemble and countless others. She is also a talented actress and has performed with Yara Arts Group at La Mama Theatre in New York, the Enwave Theatre in Toronto and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC.
Ilana is a natural performer and her electric and emotionally intense stage presence has been praised by audiences around the world.
“The stage is home to me,” says Ilana. “Nothing brings me more joy than to be able to communicate with an audience through music and dance".
In 2011, Ilana founded Ventanas. The result of Ilana’s lifetime of culturally diverse musical experience, Ventanas weaves upbeat Bulgarian dance tunes, Greek, Turkish and Sephardic love songs and heart-wrenching Flamenco music and dance pieces into one coherent whole. The group’s talented and diverse musicians blend the intensity of Flamenco guitar, the excitement of Middle Eastern doumbek, the soulful sounds of Greek outi and baglama, and the party vibe of Klezmer and Eastern European fiddle to create an incomparable sound with Ilana’s powerful vocals and dance leading the way.
Ventanas 2013 debut self-titled album was nominated at the Canadian Folk Music Awards for “Best Traditional Singer” and “Best Ensemble” of the Year. In 2015 they released their second album, Arrelumbre, which has also been nominated at the Canadian Folk Music Awards, for “Best World Music Group” and “Traditional Singer of the Year.” They have toured Canada extensively.
Tamar would like to acknowledge the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council for their continued and generous support over the years in various aspects of and projects related to her career.
- By Lia Grainger