Before we became multicultural, there were two races in English Canada: the WASPs and the Ethnics. (There were Indians too, but they were supposed to be invisible.) The WASPs ran things, and the Ethnics tried to better themselves. Almost no one doubted that they needed bettering. "Our knuckles still scraped the earth," as Toronto novelist and critic Antanas Sileika writes of his life as an Ethnic in the 1950s, in the latest issue of Geist magazine.
It must have been startling, in those simpler days, to discover that some Ethnics could get their knuckles off the dirt and become quite elegant, without trying to pass as WASPs. A few, like the sixties folk-duo Malka and Joso, could do it even singing in Russian, Hebrew, Spanish and Serbo-Croatian.
Malka and Joso, whose music has just resurfaced on an EMI anthology album, were mysterious, unabashedly Ethnic and very seductive. During their short but successful four-year career, they brought a new cosmopolitanism to music in Canada, and helped crack the barrier of shame that kept many Canadians from celebrating their origins.
Malka and Joso were stars, not just here but in places that mattered, such as New York. They appeared on the Tonight Show. They sang at Carnegie Hall. They were Canada's answer to multilingual troubadours such as Theodore Bikel and Nana Mouskouri.
The two met in a coffee house in Toronto's Yorkville district in 1963. Malka Marom was an Israeli who had worked as an actress and dancer, and had appeared in one of the first Israeli feature films. Joso Spralja was a Croatian who had studied classical music in Zagreb, where he had sung opera and operetta. They started performing together in every language but the official ones, and quickly gained a following in folk-mad Toronto.
Their style was dramatically intimate. Reviews of their shows note that they seemed to sing to each other as much as to the audience, and with such élan that no one needed an exact translation.
"Malka is a folk artist who can show she can be 'Ethnic' in an elaborate coiffure and a floor-length dress," gasped The Hamilton Spectator. Joso showed he could charm a WASP audience without understanding a word of English. After just three years of singing together, they landed a national TV show on the CBC, which ran right after Hockey Night In Canada. They toured to some of the most remote parts of Canada, bringing Russian drinking songs and Yiddish lullabies to the Northwest Territories and the mountainous outposts of northern British Columbia.
Then in 1967, Pierre Berton's "last good year," Malka and Joso broke up their act. Folk music faded, the official counterculture began its noisy career, and Canada became multicultural.
The pair were a distant memory till just months ago, when an EMI Canada executive named Shan Kelley was looking for ways to mark his company's 50th anniversary. Deep down in the vaults, someone discovered the master-tapes of Malka and Joso's four best-selling albums, recorded for Capitol in a few quick sessions in the mid-sixties.
The compilation disc drawn from those old tapes seems timeless, and only partly because many of the songs have been around forever. Malka and Joso had a knack for conveying much with little, and were clever enough to realize that they didn't need elaborate arrangements. Their performances with acoustic guitars feel classic, and authentic.
Joso's voice is obviously the more polished of the two, though he never sounds like an opera singer slumming it. He could pass for a fisherman who just happens to have a warm, manly voice and a natural musical instinct (his father did in fact run a fishing boat off the Dalmatian coast). Bravura flourishes and the most delicate, light singing in the upper voice are both within easy reach, and they always mean something. Andrea Bocelli could learn a lot from Joso.
But Joso probably wouldn't have been as effective without Malka's earthy alto to back him up. At times her singing recalls the unvarnished tones of another sixties icon, Astrid Gilberto, though Malka has far more heft and sophistication. She can be very delicate, cooing a sad Yiddish song in such an intimate heartfelt way as make it seem like the sound of drying salt tears. Her open-throated solo numbers sound like something you might hear from a Middle Eastern field-worker with both bare heels in the soil.
The new album was launched last week at a crowded wine-and-calamari party at Joso's, the Toronto restaurant Joso opened after he decided to stop singing and start cooking. He's 70 now, his hair is white and sparse, and his voice has faded after a stroke a few years ago. Malka at 64 is still beautiful, thanks to good bones and a 500-watt smile. She sang solo for some years after Joso withdrew to the kitchen, became a broadcaster, and most recently turned novelist (her first book, Sulha,was published last fall to good reviews).
They sang a little, and hobnobbed with old friends (including guitarist Eli Kassner, who first introduced them; and Sam (the Record Man) Sniderman, who first pitched them to a Capitol A&R man named Paul White). Malka joked about how she used to translate for Joso, by repeating to him in English what someone had just said in English (she never understood why it worked), and they grinned at cameras that had not been trained on them for over 30 years.
That's what a piece of living cultural history looks like. To hear what it sounds like, you've got to buy the album. And you really should.