Malka Marom (Jan. 21, 1936 – ), Joso Spralja (May 23, 1929 – Aug. 8, 2017)
MALKA & JOSO, Folksingers
Sept. 25, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT
One of the joys of writing Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note is that I get many suggestions from many people from many places about many musicians.
My long-time Ottawa friend David Dunlop nominated Malka & Joso by reminding me that he was “smitten” by Malka when he was a host at Expo ’67’s Canada pavilion in Montreal. Recalled Dunlop: “I met Malka Himel (as the Canadian Encyclopedia lists her surname) when she and Joso were playing there. I invited her as my date to celebrate at the Canada Day party for the hosts and hostesses of all the national pavilions. After that, I never saw her again.”
A Holocaust survivor, Malka Marom and her Polish parents came to Palestine when she was six weeks old. As a child, she debuted in The Village Tale, the first Israeli-produced TV movie. And as a teenager, she loved folk dancing and singing in the Dalia Festival.
Malka moved to Toronto in the early 1960s, got married and ultimately formed half of the folk singing duo Malka & Joso with fellow singer, Croatian-born Joso Spralja. They are credited with “bringing ‘ethnic’ music to Canada for the first time and never tried passing as WASPs,” Robert Everett-Green wrote in The Globe and Mail.
Joso (who was not Jewish) arrived in Canada from Croatia in 1962 and was introduced to Malka by guitarist Eli Kassner (who later played lead guitar on all of Malka’s recordings) at an after-hours club in Toronto’s Yorkville district, called The 71. Thus began a partnership as an eclectic-world folk music duo, with their first performance at Toronto’s Lord Simcoe Hotel in 1963, followed by tours across Canada, the U.S. and UK.
Malka was the spokesperson for the twosome, since Joso knew little English. She introduced their songs and translated the lyrics, inventing storylines to augment the numbers that made up each set.
They played the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1964 with Ian & Sylvia, Jerry Gray and The Travellers, and Gordon Lightfoot.
They were signed by Capitol EMI Canada, the result of an introduction made by iconic retailer Sam (“The Record Man”) Sniderman. Their first album, Introducing Malka & Joso, included guitarist Rafael Nunez and bassist Fred Muscat.
“They recorded each song as if it was performed live – vocals and instrumentals in one take, producing enough material for two albums,” wrote Croatia.org. They released three additional albums: Mostly Love Songs (which won an RPM Award in 1965, when the duo won the year’s Best Folk Group); Jewish Songs – Hebrew & English and Malka & Joso – Folk Songs From Around the World.
In 1966, they headlined a weekly CBC-TV series called Malka & Joso’s a World of Music TV, “which projected an image of cosmopolitanism that is perfect,” wrote Toronto Star music critic Robert Fulford.
The duo parted ways in 1967, with Joso becoming a celebrity restaurateur. Malka continued singing on her own. Between tours, she hosted, wrote and sang on the weekly CBC Radio show, Song of Our People and CITY TV’s weekly show Mosaic.
Over the years, she interviewed Pablo Casals (three months before he died at 96), Leonard Cohen, Moshe Dayan, Joni Mitchell, Nana Mouskouri and Gilles Vigneault. She was nominated five times for ACTRA Awards, winning one for her eight-hour radio documentary, The Bite of the Big Apple.
Malka wrote her first novel, Sulha during tour of the Sinai. It was lauded by Canadian critics. The Jerusalem Post reported, “Rare in the avalanche of books on the Arab-Israeli conflict, most of which take a stand. Sulha gives every side its say in the infinitely complex situation.” She told the Post, “I refused to make it simple. Life is not simple, nor is forgiveness, reconciliation and peace, especially in the Middle East.”
Her second book, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, was published in 2014, and Conversation with Leonard Cohen in 2015.
A CD retrospective of their music was released in 2001. Famed tenor Andrea Bocelli “could learn a lot from Joso,” pronounced the Globe and Mail. “But Joso probably would not have been as effective without Malka’s alto sung in such an intimate way as to make it seem like the sound of drying salt water tears or full-throated, like a field worker with both feet in the soil.”
Married and living in Toronto, Malka is the proud mother of two sons: TV and film documentary producer Martin Himel, who lives in Tel Aviv, and Daniel Marom, an educator living in Jerusalem.
She’s currently writing a book about Malka & Joso. The focus, she told me, “is about our contribution to creating a better understanding of the challenges facing immigrants coming to Canada.”
David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary