Ehab Lotayefs niece, Torontonian Maryem Tollar, is one of Canadas finest Arabic singers. Against the heavy backdrop of the war in Iraq and the Intifada in Palestine, they presented a rich evening of jazz, world music, poetry and photography titled: Family Values.
Wearing a narrow black and white Palestinian scarf over a black blouse, the barefoot Maryem Tollar was the aural focal point of the evening. Seated between superb jazz pianist Dave Restivo, and her husband / record producer / songwriter / wind instrument virtuoso Ernie Tollar, she performed a wide variety of English and Arabic songs. Adding to the musical enchantment were violinist and oud-player Kathleen Kajioka, percussionist Art Avalos, and one of the most musical and versatile bassists youll ever enjoy, Ian DeSouza.
Every song was accompanied by a series of Lotayefs slides largely selections from his middle-east travels and Montreal anti-war protest marches effectively projected on a screen which was just large enough. An ominous, black, dripping font was used for many of the song titles projected on the screen.
Highlights included Ehab Lotayefs poetry readings about half-way through the concert. Accompanied by flutist Ernie Tollar, Ehabs words were direct, accessible and poignant. Maryem Tollars expressive face acted as a reflection of the emotions Lotayef conveyed, and Ehabs own eyes expressed deep sadness over the loss of Tom Fox at the hands of Iraqi kidnappers. The audience at Glen Gould Studio reacted passionately to Lotayefs words, such as this excerpt from Hostage (written in Baghdad in December, 2005):
When facing fear with my back to the wall,
Will I become a hostage of despair?
A people taken hostage taking hostages
Kill the greed that is growing in the heart!
Only then will the hostage be released
However, it would not be fair for me to leave you with the impression that the evening was strictly a political or humanitarian event, for there were songs about family, and many slides of happy children.
Maryem Tollar is a splendid singer, and I loved the way she rocked back and forth in her chair when she became passionate about the lyrics. The pinnacle of her singing and playing was the second to last song of the evening, when she played the qanun (which resembles a harp, only it is played flat on the player's lap) and sang in Arabic. She was never more radiant and confident then during that inspiring number. And what a voice!
The largely jazz-influenced program was well executed, but I did remark to my companion how ironic I found it that such profound subjects be interpreted through toe-tapping jazz numbers. Frankly, I struggled with the juxtaposition.
Jazz knows no limits offered my friend, besides, this was a program about hope, not despair.
In the hours since I witnessed Family Values, Ive realized that I absorbed a significant emotional understanding of the plight of Iraqis and other oppressed people. It is a situation I have always understood intellectually, but the gift of empathy is one that art is uniquely qualified to deliver. I left reminded of the real value of art in our lives.