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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Since their break-out album The Coffee House in 2016, Al Qahwa Ensemble has performed original compositions, instrumental improvisations, as well as popular traditional Arabic repertoire – from hypnotic Sufi Devotional Love songs from the Arab world to popular folk songs, to classic Egyptian songs made famous by the stars of Egypt (the Hollywood of the Middle East).

The new album Cairo Moon, expresses the varied cultural influences of the players (Egyptian, Greek, Canadian and Iranian), and deftly utilizes a wide range of sources for music and lyrics from the likes of Egyptian Canadian poet and activist Ehab Lotayef to renowned English poet William Blake. The theme throughout features everything Cairo, Egypt, and about connections to the moon. All of the traditional songs included are from Egypt and the collection of original songs all have links to Egypt.

As authentic as the Khan el-Khalili souk (market) in old Cairo, and as timely as daily headlines about refugees and migrants facing grave danger to cross the Mediterranean, this enthralling song "The Dream/Il Hilm" addresses the contradiction between the beautiful dream of life in a new land, and the brutal reality of it.

On one of the few songs sung in English here, Maryem Tollar and her band – especially the redoubtable horn master Ernie Tollar, her husband, who wrote the music – adapt the lyrics for "Little Lamb" from the well-known William Blake poem, and set it to a mournful, haunting, swaying melody that hints at the possible fate of slaughter that might await the poor creature.

"Sama'i Blues" is an instrumental which deploys the classical Arabic sama'i form – a rhythmic cycle of 10/8 – but with composer and violinist Alfred Gamil's interpretation of a bluesy feel.

Made famous by Egyptian singer Fayza Ahmed, the song "Beloved Mother/Sitt Il Habayib" celebrates mothers, and is normally performed on Mother's Day (which is on March 21st in Egypt). Maryem Tollar remarks, "Any celebration of women, in any capacity, is especially welcome in our current climate."

Originally an instrumental written by band oud player Demetri Petsalakis for his Near East Trio project, he asked Maryem to craft lyrics to "Cairo/Al Qahira," since she was born in Cairo to Egyptian parents. She wrote about her childhood visits to Cairo on summer holidays. The song, sung equally in English and Arabic, starts with propulsive percussion from Nagmeh Fahrahmand, setting the brisk pace for the revelatory tales that follow. The extended, naked solo fiddle (Gamil) breakdown in the middle is powerfully hypnotic, as is Tollar’s flute solo with the band, that follows.

Written entirely by Ernie Tollar, "Full Moon Prayer" asks for salvation from the moon, and makes the heavenly connection between the orb and our own human composition of stardust. It featires a lovely precussive section, followed by a sinuous saxophone solo.

"Sing to Me/Ghannili," a song made famous by Egyptian diva Om Kalsoum, known as "the voice of Egypt," and it smoulders, via featured unison vocals in the chorus from Maryem and Syrian clarinetist Majd Sukar.

The Egyptian revolutionary song "The Beautiful One/Il Helwa Di" by composer Sayyid Darwish, is one of many songs written for the people of his homeland. The morning imagery of a rooster crowing, a beautiful one rising to knead the breakfast bread, and workers awakening to start the day, offer an allegory urging the Egyptian people to rise up, gather their tools, and do the necessary work to reclaim their country.

Recorded live, "The Nightingale/Il Bulbul" is a popular, traditional folk song known throughout the Middle East. Once again, it features powerful unison vocals in the chorus. The percussion-and-clapping break in the middle, soon joined by a saxophone and clarinet, sounds like the band was having a lot of fun at the time – as does the crescendo finale.


Maryem Tollar is a renowned Egyptian-Canadian vocalist, known for her world music performances. Her voice has been heard on the theme of CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie and A.R. Rahman’s Bollywood hit, Mayya Mayya. Tollar was the featured vocalist in Tafelmusik’s production of multi-media performances of “Tales of Two Cities, The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee Houses” and the narrator and vocalist in “Safe Haven.” She performed Christos Hatzis’ piece “Syn-Phonia – Migration Patterns” with The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Inuit throat singer Tiffany Ayalik; and his multi-media piece “Constantinople” with The Gryphon Trio and Patricia O’Callaghan. She performs with several Toronto musical groups including Al Qahwa; Odessa Havana (original Jewish/Cuban music); and with the quartet Turkwaz whose CD “Nazar” was nominated for a 2017 Juno award.

Ernie Tollar is an internationally renowned musician/composer who has been brilliantly contributing to the Toronto jazz and world music scene since 1980. He has performed in major jazz and folk festivals in Europe, India, Egypt, U.S.A., and across Canada. He can be heard with several Toronto groups including Al Qahwa; Near East Trio (Indian/Arabic/Jazz); and Moneka Arabic Jazz (North African/Arabic/Jazz).

Naghmeh Farahmand has performed in many well-known Iranian traditional bands in Iran and at festivals around the world in places such as Germany, Switzerland, Japan (Min On Festival), France (La fête de Musique), Italy, Kuwait (Women’s festival), Austria and England. She was honoured to perform with Hassan Nahid, Iranian master of the ney and Hengameh Akhavan, a famous singer of traditional music. In 2010, Naghmeh moved to Canada and started work in world music, specifically in Arabic, Bulgarian, Turkish, Indian and jazz music. She has been teaching in various music institutes for 15 years and has taught master classes and workshops around the world.

Demetri Petsalakis, originally from Athens Greece, is a Toronto-based musician performing in a variety of styles with a focus on Greek and Middle Eastern lutes. He is involved with bands such as Al Qahwa, Near East, Moneka Arabic Jazz, Zephyr and Ventanas where he is featured playing a variety of stringed instruments including oud, guitar and lyra. Demetri has a Master’s Degree of Music in jazz guitar performance from the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in music from York University.