Seasonal Song Covers Religious, Cultural Bases

Dec. 14, 2020

By RUTH SCHWEITZER

Just in time for the festive season: The Toronto-based comedy duo of Roula Said and Maryem Tollar has released a hilarious new, all-purpose holiday tune, Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written by Jews.

In part, the song is the ladies’ response to COVID, with its prohibitions against gathering and the lockdowns, Tollar said. “We just wanted to put out something funny and fun to put a smile on people’s faces,” she said.

What they and many others have noticed is that the children of Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century wrote many of the Christmas classics.

Jewish songwriters wrote secular holiday songs for Jews and Christians. Johnny Marks’ Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer could be seen an expression of the desire to be accepted by the mainstream.

Famously, Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin) wrote White Christmas. Recorded by Bing Crosby in 1942, it became, at least according to the Guinness Book of Records, the best-selling single of all time.

Jewish songwriters tended to celebrate the holiday season rather than the birth of Jesus, with subjects like snow (Let It Snow!, written by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne), or an evening spent in front of the fireplace (The Christmas Song) by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé – both Jewish.

Both Canadians of Arab descent, Said and Tollar said they could relate to the feeling of being an outsider. Said grew up in a predominately white suburb of Toronto in the 1970s and ‘80s during the “Paki bashing” era. When Tollar’s family immigrated to Canada in 1969, they were only the second Egyptian family to settle in Halifax.

Said and Tollar – the duo is known as FAOC, or the Friggin’ Arab Orchestra Company – have added a new dimension to the tradition of the holiday song by being who they are. Said is from a Palestinian Christian family and Tollar has a Muslim background.

Said related that ever since she learned many Christmas songs were written by Jews, she’d wanted to record some of them. Instead of recording Christmas standards for this year’s holiday season, though, the duo decided to write a new tune.

“This year, with COVID, and Maryem and I living in a shared house, we developed this comedy schtick that came out of our friendship,” Said noted. “It seemed like the right time to do this little brainchild of mine, and it occurred to me that it would be fun to actually write our own song.”

The music of Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written by Jews could have come out of the Great American Songbook. The ladies’ song references past Christmas tunes and they sample riffs from several of them. But their lyrics are contemporary – COVID and cannabis are mentioned – and the song is inclusive, reflecting Toronto’s diversity.

Tollar learned Christmas songs while singing in her school choir. “I totally love them and know them very well,” she said.

People who grew up without Christmas celebrations may relate to Tollar’s account of how, as a child, she felt left out of the seasonal excitement and tried to recreate the holiday for herself.

“One year, my parents had a Christmas tree in their house and the next year they thought it’s not a good idea because that’s not our religion. I was so sad. I remember praying to Santa Claus, telling him I believed in him and I knew he would make Christmas happen for me,” she said.

“And of course that didn’t happen. And my cousin who lived with us, she felt sorry for me. So she bought me a little plastic Christmas tree and I would wrap my own toys and then unwrap them at Christmas.”

The unofficial tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas merits a mention in the song, as is Honest Ed’s, the now-demolished bargain store at Bathurst and Bloor. The song concludes with Said and Tollar bantering about the store, where Said and her husband, David Buchbinder, purchased their wedding rings.

Recording the effort was a family affair: It was arranged by Buchbinder, who plays trumpet, and Maryem’s husband, Ernie Tollar, plays additional piano. The couples’ children contributed, too, with Joska Tollar on bass and Laila Buchbinder on guitar.

Said, a singer, dancer, actor and poet, co-leads the funked up Arabic-Roma band, Nomadica, whose first recording, Dance of the Infidels, was nominated for a Juno Award. She creates music for dance performances and theatre, and runs the Om Laila Studio, where she teaches Arabic dance.

Tollar is a renowned vocalist whose voice has been heard on the theme of CBC’s television series Little Mosque on the Prairie and A.R. Rahman’s Bollywood hit, Mayya Mayya. She performs with several Toronto musical groups, including Al Qahwa and Turkwaz. Tollar won the inaugural 2019 Johanna Metcalf Prize for Performing Arts.

Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written by Jews  will premiere on Facebook Dec. 20 at 7 p.m.

https://www.facebook.com/events/2853347698280607?active_tab=about

It is also on YouTube at:

The song may be purchased on Bandcamp at:

https://faoc.bandcamp.com/releases?fbclid=IwAR3scixqK0ukHC7EAjIuv2h_R1zcsJtFaK_XagS2Mr1v-OpnFVkCwWrihBA