June 2008

Maryem and Ernie Tollar's Cairo-Toronto Collective
at the TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival
June 22, 2008 Glenn Gould Studio Toronto
Striking Gould with an International Collective
by Laila Boulos
The ever personable Andrew Craig of CBC Radio 2 warmed up the audience announcing that the upcoming musicians had been jamming for a week. Interlocking his fingers, he added that Ernie and Maryem Tollar, who are married, share a wonderful synergy as musicians and that we were in for a treat.

Although the evening's musical selections were primarily Middle Eastern-themed, the performers brought in a flurry of influences reflective of their various crossings of paths in ensembles such as Ritual Party, Maza Mezé and Tasa as well as work with Jesse Cook, Trichy Sankaran and Rick Lazar.

As some of the musicians had previously met each other, wrapping around the stage was a strong feeling of comaraderie which was further enforced when Maryem introduced the band members as her 'brothers'. This feeling of love and brotherhood flowed freely across the stage, out into the audience and bounced powerfully back to the musicians in endless loops, through rousing applause and countless standing ovations.

Previously mentioned was the distinctive Arabic flavour that influenced the majority of pieces. The guitar, bass and drum kit and the traditional Arabic instruments such as the qanun, derbakeh/doumbek and oud meshed effortlessly yet beautifully, spicing up all the selections, folding latin, blues, classical and jazz styles into the creations. While Maryem sang lead vocals on most pieces with earnest tenderness, Mohamed Aly, who shared some of the principal vocals, sang with a voice draped in ancient, ancestral robes evoking centuries of emotion, longing and suffering.

Many songs were emotional poems (by Maryem's Montréal-based uncle) which she set exquisitely to music. Alfred Gamil's pieces, in contrast, were heavily influenced by the Turkish or Ottoman Empire, displaying some complex arrangements. A gorgeous piece of sweat-dripping-from-brow complexity was smoothly handled by the musicians and was quickly followed by "Secrets" with it's throbbing beat and sultry percussion. All the arrangements swept languidly back and forth, stirring sensibilities, carrying the listener effortlessly, dreamily as if ascending and descending a lovingly handcrafted circular staircase.

Maryem Tollar
During the piece "Beauty of the World", the raw, plaintive vocals of Bassam Bishara's solo filled the theatre as he was hugged by a chorus of angelic harmonies while the remaining vocalists carried him in unison. Sadly, Bishara honoured the audience with his solo vocals on only one occasion during this evening.

Alfred Gamil's childlike sense of mirth was evident on his "Longa Jazz" piece in which he created dramatic musical drop-offs which were filled with colourful solos in succession by: Alan Hetherington's dramatic drum flourishes; a Coltrane-was-rocking-in-his-grave sax solo from Ernie Tollar, and finally, a Kenny Burrell-driven guitar solo from Levon Ichkhanian. For the final drop-off, as no solo awaited Gamil's quizzically mischievious eye, his violin sped up the tempo to end the song amidst laughter and overwhelming applause from the audience.

On another piece, "Why are you looking at me like this?", the tempo and rhythmic patterns were evocative of a lascivious chase around a couch, while "The Dream", carried by Andrew Stewart's gorgeous (self-constructed) groove-ladened bass, complemented by Debashis Sinha's digging-deep percussion, filled audience ears with sultry, bluesy intoxication.

Their final effort, "Peace", with it's creative unravelling of layers as it travelled towards a whirling finale, ignited an instantaneous standing ovation, ear crashing applause and a variety of shouts of admiration until the hoped-for encore arrived.

As Maryem left the stage, the other musicians began a slow, methodical jam session that swooped around the stage winding up to a lively version of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" then twisting into a too short take on Juan Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez". It then continued into an extended free-flowing river of musical reverie to the delight of everyone, including the players.

With titles such as, "Freedom", "Heart and Soul", "Beauty of the World" and finally, "Peace", and lyrics such as "peace is not just a word....it is justice" and "I'm free even if you harm me...you can't break me...only I can free myself" the wishes and values of this Collective are quite apparent. Or you might look at it this way; Marshall McLuhan famously stated, "The medium is the message", and the soul stirring and hip-sway-inducing melodies of Maryem and Ernie Tollar's Cairo-Toronto Collective say it all!

Ernie Tollar
Listen to this concert @ CBC Radio 2 – Concerts On Demand.
Maryem and Ernie Tollar's Cairo-Toronto Collective
Ernie Tollar – flutes, saxophone
Maryem Tollar – qanum, vocals
Mohamed Aly – oud, violin, vocals
Bassam Bishara – oud, vocals
Alfred Gamil – oud, violin
Alan Hetherington – drum kit, percussion
Levon Ichkhanian – guitar
Debashis Sinha – percussion
Andrew Stewart – Bass
We welcome your comments and feedback
Laila Boulos
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