Two acclaimed Canadian music ensembles, Vancouver’s Chor Leoni and Montreal’s La Nef, join forces as they explore the music of the sea in Sea Songs & Shanties at the Chan Centre on February 22.

Inspired by a tradition of English maritime music going back to the 16th century, the concert gives audiences a rare opportunity to hear the songs that accompanied a sailor’s work and play with modern arrangements by La Nef’s musical director Seán Dagher. The concert will also include selections sung by the men of Chor Leoni led by their artistic director and conductor Erick Lichte.

“What I love about this music is the inclusiveness,” explains Dagher in a media release. “Sea songs and shanties didn’t start out as music to be heard. They were songs to be sung, songs to help with the work, songs to pass the time together. It’s a collaborative effort that builds teamwork. So, when we’re performing these songs, it’s not just for an audience — it’s also for each other.”

Saying it was no small challenge in bringing the “tar-stained and tattered” pieces into the concert hall, Dagher took some liberties by letting his musical instincts to take him and the choirs into the direction the songs pointed. “We have harmonized and arranged and re-harmonized and re-arranged all of these songs into the pieces that we ourselves would want to hear,” he says.

The primary source of the music for the concert comes from Stan Hugill’s Shanties by the Seven Seas, a collection of more than 400 sea songs that also includes the historical context explaining the origins and function of each song. The program’s repertoire is drawn from all over the world, including England, Scotland, Ireland, Estonia, the Americas and the Caribbean.

The project itself, though, began as a soundtrack La Nef performed in 2012 for software company Ubisoft Entertainment. “We were initially hired to create a soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed that sounded like uneducated pirates,” says Dagher. “Whenever we added anything nice, like even adding simple harmonies, the producer reminded us we needed to sound bad.”

Though Dagher and his team delivered what Ubisoft wanted, it was a frustrating process as he says the music called out for so much more. “In 2014, subsequent to the enormous success of the soundtrack, we all decided to get together again and re-imagine these songs as we wanted to hear them in arrangements we knew would be fun for a live audience. We have been touring the programme ever since.”

In this first collaboration between the two ensembles, Dagher and Lichte agreed that a partnership with a men’s choir was the perfect instrument to bolster and complement La Nef’s original crew and that it also made sense to include some music for the choir to sing alone.

Among the selections that Chor Leoni will sing are Jonah’s Song, by P.D.Q. Bach’s “real-life” counterpart, Peter Schickele which sets a hymn text written by Herman Melville in his 1851 novel Moby-Dick and Incantatio Maris Aestuosi (Incantation for a Stormy Sea), a work for male choir by the Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. Chor Leoni will also join La Nef in several new arrangements of some of the original pieces that have been re-imagined for this joint ensemble.

Early Music Vancouver presents Sea Songs & Shanties at the Chan Shun Concert Hall at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts (6265 Crescent Rd, Vancouver) on February 22. Visit for tickets and information.