Al Qahwa - Maryem Tollar, Ernie Tollar, Demetri Petsalakis, Naghmeh Farahmand


WHOLENOTE Magazine – March 2021 – CD Review of African Routes by Lesley Mitchell-Clarke

“Talented world music group, Al Qahwa Ensemble, has just released their third exceptional recording. The diverse musicians are all based in Toronto: Maryem Toller on vocals and riqq (Arabic tambourine) and qanun (Arabic table harp); Ernie Toller on wind instruments; Greek/Canadian Demetri Petsalakis on oud (Arabic fretless lute) and Iranian/Canadian Nagmeh Farahmand on Middle-Eastern percussion. The group’s esteemed special guests include Waleed Abdulhamid, Fethi Nadjem and Roula Said.

The program begins with Marrakesh – which was inspired by the all-female ensemble, B’Net Marrakesh. Having seen them perform, Maryem utilized their unique chant “Hey Hey Hey Hey” in this piece, which instigates an incendiary energy through call and response, hypnotic rhythms and dynamic, mesmerizing vocals. Also thrilling is The Rain/Il Matar – a musical telling of the story of a sudden, brief storm across the land, driven mercilessly by the relentless 12/8 of the dumbek as well as interlacing, dynamic vocals and funkadelic bass lines, moving in unison.

Another delight is Bahia Out – a traditional Egyptian folk song about a woman with beautiful dark eyes who kills a man with those same eyes while riding a camel – a sensual, provocative trip, where one could easily imagine the air filled with exotic spices. Precise and thrilling vocals propel this caravan through the oasis!

Peace/Issalam has a euphoric intro, which segues into the deep groove of Mother Earth herself. Cairo/Al Qahira is the dynamic closer – composed by Petsalakis with lyrics by Cairo-born Maryem, this delightful tune includes the hilarious insertion of a little excerpt from an old Egyptian movie, Khally Balak Min ZouZou. The ensemble explodes into a wild pentatonic jam with the sheer joy of the music. The track ends with a primal percussion segment that could restore us all to the very dawn of time itself.”

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India News Calling – March 2021

“Following their highly acclaimed sophomore album Cairo Moon, the group released African Routes which continues to breathe new life into traditional Arabic songs alongside innovative originals.

The beautifully animated video for “Lullaby” (from African Routes”, was created by Allison Long and Micha Pichlkastner with audio recorded by Reza Moghaddas at Small World Music Centre and mixed and mastered by Jono Grant at Victory Drive Recording. Maryem wrote “Lullaby” when she was pregnant with her third child, and each of the three verses is dedicated to each one of her children – Omneya, Joska, and Janos. The key to this beautiful, gentle melody lies in the delicate interplay between the African kora (a plucked stringed instrument), and the Syrian qanun (Arabic table harp), balanced against the sweet lyra (a bowed string instrument).

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SONGLiNES Magazine – Jan/Feb 2020 Edition – CD Review of Cairo Moon by Shukri Habib Ali

“This exciting album is rooted in a rich Middle Eastern soundscape. […] Al Qahwa make use of diverse instruments such as ney, qanun, oud, saxophone, violin and daf, culminating in busy, urgent harmonies; and along with Tollar’s melismatic vocals the quartet evoke the yearning, ecsatic tarab of Oum Kalthoum. Al Qahwa’s viruosity shines through on ‘Sama’i Blues’, which incorporates subtle jazz flavours and benefits greatly from the presence of guest violinist Dr. Alfred Gamil. It is a thrilling listen.”

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“Maryem Tollar sings with a quietly haunting presence, an easy dignified elegance, and a self-assured femininity in a new CD, Cairo Moon, from the group Al Qahwa which also features Ernie Tollar on Arabic nay flute and saxophone, Demetri Petsalakis on oud, Naghmeh Farahmand on the dumbek, an Arabic hand drum. We have multi instrumentalists in these musicians and the CD also features Alfred Gamil on violin as in the duet with Ernie Tollar’s sax, and also Majd Sukar on clarinet. One quickly surrenders to the irresistible atmosphere created by Al Qahwa, and because this is a small group of diversely-expert musicians, one takes pleasure in, say, many tonal varieties, rhythmic shifts, and individual instrumental voices as one might in listening to chamber music – all the while as one’s hips sway to the music and one feels summoned to a nameless somewhere.”

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James Strecker Reviews the Arts

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The Wholenote Magazine – Pot Pourri – Album Review by Raul da Gama

Ernie and Maryem Tollar, master of wind instruments and vocals respectively, have been mainstays of the Toronto music scene individually, and also have often come together to make music. But rarely has their musicianship been showcased more beautifully than here, where they have combined with oud specialist Demetri Petsalakis for the second time as Al Qahwa, on their album Cairo Moon.
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Roots Music Canada Album Review – by Paul Corby

Cairo Moon is the newest disc showcasing the many vivacious talents of Toronto’s modern Middle Eastern quartet Al Qahwa. With this sophomore record the four core members bring their multi-channelled talents and Greek/Iranian/Egyptian/Canadian heritages back together to envision an exotic and political international airspace filled with halos instead of helicopters.
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Artsfile by Peter Robb – Chamberfest: Maryem Tollar blends a special blend of world music

Maryem Hassan Tollar spent much of her youth running away from the strict Muslim tradition in her family home. “I was born in Egypt and we came to Canada in 1969 when I was one. We went to Halifax. We were the second Egyptian family there.” She remembers it was tough going. “People would tell my siblings and me that we weren’t real Canadians. All we wanted to do is fit in. I actually stayed as far away from my heritage as I could.” She loved singing but preferred the folk songs that she learned at school. “As a teenager and all through university I was performing pop and folk music.” She returned to Arabic music through her brother Ahmed Hassan, who was 13 years older. He was a composer for modern dance and was married to the Canadian dancer/choreographer Peggy Baker until he passed away from multiple sclerosis. “He was commissioned to do a piece for Dancemakers that needed an Arabic singer. He didn’t know one of those, but he knew I spoke Arabic and he knew I could sing. “He said, ‘If you take care of the singing lessons, I’ll give you this amazing gig and you’ll get to tour Europe’. That was the first really professional thing that I had been offered.” That’s how she started studying Arabic music.

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Tafelmusik’s Tales of Two Cities at Disney Hall

… “Members of Trio Arabica [3 of the 4 members of Al Qahwa] showed their virtuosity throughout, but especially in a series of solos and duets that featured them in the second half of the show. Demetri Petsalakis displayed the range of the oud, a plucked string instrument. Vocalist Maryem Tollar sang a florid and melismatic solo; and then Naghmeh Farahmand did a mesmerizing improvisation on that “moon drum,” the seemingly simple daf, which is both struck and shaken to produce an astonishing range of effects. All were met with enthusiastic applause.” (March

Tafelmusik’s Tales of Two Cities joins East and West over coffee

… “Mackay uses as her cultural glue, the introduction of coffee into both the East and West in the 17th and 18th centuries, so that the coffee house eventually becomes a centre of Arabic culture in Damascus, but also a centre of Western culture in Leipzig, Germany. To represent the West, we had the Tafelmusik orchestra; for the East, Trio Arabica [3 of the 4 members of Al Qahwa], vocalist Maryem Tollar, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand and oud player Demetri Petsalakis. …

Tollar’s solo was only one of several phenomenally inspired bits of music-making on display all evening – another example of correspondence between cultures. We humans like to display, we like to achieve perfection in music-making, and it really doesn’t matter who we are in this regard or where we’re from. … “

The Globe & Mail (

India News Calling

Tourism & Lifestyle News

“…the most stunning musical moment of the evening, the superb Tollar singing, a capella, Afdihi in Hafidhal Hawa Ow Diy’a, a solo that transcended cultural barriers, a passionate, soulful, heart-rending bit of intense emotion that reached every person in Koerner Hall, Eastern, Western, whatever.” ~ The Globe and Mail

TORONTO,14.06.19- – Local world music group AL QAHWA ENSEMBLE breathes new life into traditional Arabic songs alongside innovative originals on their sophomore album CAIRO MOON. The musicians, now all based in Toronto, but from varied backgrounds are Egyptian-Canadian MARYEM TOLLAR on vocals, riqq (Arabic tambourine) and qanun (Arabic table harp); Canadian ERNIE TOLLAR on wind instruments; Greek-Canadian DEMETRI PETSALAKIS on oud (Arabic fretless lute), and Iranian-Canadian NAGHMEH FAHRAHMAND on Middle Eastern percussion. The official release date is August 9 with a live album release concert on Saturday, August 10, from 8:30-11:30 pm at Hugh’s Room Live, 2261 Dundas St. West, Toronto, ON, with special guests ALFRED GAMIL, WALEED ABDULHAMID, and FETHI NADJEM. The album will be available on Spotify, CD Baby, Apple Music / iTunes and all platforms where music is streamed or downloaded.

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