On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

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

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Oscar Brand (Feb. 7, 1920 – Sept. 30, 2016): Folk Singer, Songwriter, Radio Host, Short Story Writer

July 31, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

Does the tune Something to Sing About ring a bell?

The Canadian song propelled advocates to lobby Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s Liberal government and Parliament in 1965 for the composition to become Canada’s national anthem. It didn’t happen.

Composed by Oscar Brand, Something to Sing About extolled Canada and became the premise for Let’s Sing Out, a weekly TV show hosted by Brand which launched on CTV in1963 and was broadcast later on CBC. It was the Canadian pavilion’s popular theme at Expo ’67.

Brand composed around 300 songs and released some 100 albums, many with Canadian and American patriotic lyrics, but was best known as a radio show host for an amazing 70 years.

The Guinness Book of World Records confirms he holds the radio show host longevity record, beginning on Dec. 10, 1945 and ending Sept. 24, 2016. His 10 p.m. Saturday fixture, Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival, ruled that slot for seven decades on New York City’s WNYC-AM 820. He never had a contract and wasn’t paid.

Of Romanian-Jewish heritage, Oscar was born in Winnipeg to Isadore and Beatrice Brand, and the clan lived on a wheat farm near the Manitoba city. His father was an Indigenous interpreter for the Hudson’s Bay Co., ran a theatre supply company, then a pawnshop.

The clan moved to the U.S. in 1927, living in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York City. Residing in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, his parents sought medical treatment for Oscar, who was born with a missing calf muscle, according to Brand’s obituary in the New York Times.

After graduating from high school, he barnstormed the United States with his banjo, working on farms to pay his way. Returning home, he graduated with a psychology degree from Brooklyn College.

He joined the U.S. Army in 1942 as an induction centre psychologist and edited a newspaper for psychiatric patients. Following his discharge, he moved to the Greenwich Village music scene and wrote a book, How To Play the Guitar Better Than Me.

The music bug had bitten Brand at age seven because he loved listening to player-piano rolls. He was a creative sort who, growing up, wanted to be “on the radio.” He was hired by WYNC, a New York city-owned AM station, and never left. 

His show was a coveted appearance for talented musicians like Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Lead Belly, Harry Chapin, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger.

As a radio and stage performer, Brand’s gritty and sometimes off-key voice had believability.

He applied the voice “to old, new and sometimes deliberately mangled songs, both on and off the air,” the Times pronounced. “He was also an accomplished songwriter: Doris Day’s version of his song, A Guy Is A Guy reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart in 1952.”

In 1959, Brand was one of the original organizers of the Newport Folk Festival. During the ‘60s he was on the Children’s Television Workshop Board advisory panel, helping to develop Sesame Street. A somewhat prickly advisor, it was rumoured that the Oscar the Grouch character was named after Brand.

Still in the ‘60s, he was a Mariposa Folk Festival mainstay, later in 1987 and at the Festival’s 50th Anniversary in 2010.

According to one profile, he scored ballets for Agnes de Mille and commercials for Log Cabin Syrup and Cheerios; wrote music for documentary films, published songbooks, short stories; and hosted the children’s television shows The First Look and Spirit of ’76.

As a budding radio jock at the University of Alberta’s radio station UACR in Calgary, I was taken with these performances. Brand’s Canadiana love-initiative revived the careers of folk music pioneers like the Womenfolk and the Weavers, and helped kick-start then little known musicians like Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell.

Brand was a civil rights activist who participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. The House Committee on Un-American Activities branded his show a “pipeline of Communism because of his support for First Amendment rights for blacklisted artists to be allowed to have a platform to reach the public,” reported the New York Daily News. Even so, Brand, reportedly was anti-Stalinist and not a Communist Party member.

“Few have sung and strummed more prolifically,” his New York Times obit lauded. “The hundreds of songs he recorded include election songs, children’s songs, vaudeville songs, sports car songs, drinking songs, outlaw songs and lascivious ditties about Nellie the Barmaid.”

Sadly, much of his and hundreds of other artists’ original masters and recordings were lost in a fire at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2008.

His numerous awards and honours included a 1995 Peabody Award for “more than 50 years in service to the music and messages of folk performers and fans around the world.”

Brand died at age 96, survived by his wife Karen, four children, and nine grandchildren.


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is founding partner of tcgpr.com and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary