by Patricia Holtz – Toronto Star
“I had my cards read in Los Angeles last month and the woman said to me, ‘Congratulations – you’ve just started a brand new cycle.’ And I said ‘Oh, no ! Not again.’” Malka laughs with enormous delight, lights a cigarette and sips her Burgundy.
Malka is Malka Marom, but no last name is needed to identify her as one of the most talented folksingers to come out of the Yorkville era. If she says “not again” with such determination, it’s because the last 10 years have already taken her form a singing career to television reporting to her present job as a perceptive, highly professional radio producer.
“I switched to radio documentaries because I was not satisfied with what I was doing in television. I borrowed a tape recorder from Moses Zniemer and flew to Jerusalem. There, I interviewed Pablo Casals; and in the Sinai desert I interviewed members of various Bedouin tribes. ”
Diana Filer, then the executive producer of CBC Radio’s Concern series, listened to five minutes of Malka’s work and pronounced the content terrific. Ann Hunter, executive producer of CBC’s Special Occasion series, listened too and says now, still slightly dazzled at the memory, “She was instant good .”
Next, Malka did the now-legendary interview with Joni Mitchell. “I didn’t know I had an exclusive until Sid Adilman [entertainment columnist for the Toronto Star] called me and told me I did.”
“I knew Joni before,” she told me, “I met her when she was performing at the Riverboat years before she was famous…
Last month CBC aired her marathon eight-hour musical documentary (in four parts) of the life and death of a Broadway show.
Next month, her special on the state of Canadian poetry and the particular impact of Irving Layton’s work will be heard on the same network.
So she has been busy.
There is a firm but unspoken understanding that we will leave her private life private, which I respect – she would do the same if an interviewee of hers asked for the consideration, and after all it is her work and not her private life that is the reason we have met.
The more we talk, the more the meeting takes on many of the aspects of a good radio interview. Perhaps it springs from Malka’s own ability to use simple conversations to get to the essence of a person. Maybe it is just that she’s most familiar with that conversational format and slips into it. But t I think at the core of Malka there is always a clear notion of which questions really matter, and of the importance of answering them thoughtfully.
When it came to presenting a picture of the woman, and where she is today, I soon realized that no one could do a better job of it than Malka herself.
Malka grew up in Israel, where she acted as child in the first movie made in that country. ( that movie is housed today at the Stephan Spielberg’s archives);she moved to Toronto after she married a Canadian and shortly after she danced with Charlotte de Neve dance company.
In the 60s she met the Yugoslav-born singer: Joso. They formed a duo of international songs, and ultimately became one of Canada’s best-known and most successful teams.
As Malka and Joso, they introduced ethnic music to thousands of Canadians; at their peak they were bigger than Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot or Joni Mitchell.
But in 1967, after making four LPs, starring in their own TV series, appearing a few times on the Johnny Carson show, at Carnegie Hall, and London before Princess Margaret, they split.
Malka struck out on her own. “I was curious to know if there was still something new to express.” she says. For years, Malka continued on her own, giving concerts in Canada, the US, South America, the UK and Israel.
When her personal life demanded she, a single mother, quit “the road” to care for her teen age son, “some friends of mine who told me I might be a good interviewer, suggested I approach Don Cameron, who was the head of a local CBC news show then. So I went to his office and said, “How about giving me a chance?” He looked at me and said, “You think you’ll be good? Do an interview live, today, on the air, with Charley Pride.”
“Actually she didn’t do too badly.” Cameron, now vice-president of news features and information programming at CTV, says.
“It is to Don Cameron that I am forever grateful in my happy moments and forever angry in my bad moments.
Although I did a bad interview, he saw something there, and told me I could hang around and learn.”
Despite persisting misgivings about her ability to communicate effectively in English (Hebrew being her native tongue.), Malka had got her start in broadcast journalism.
“I switched to radio documentaries because I was not satisfied with what I was doing in television. I found that my strength was to ask the questions that everyone would if they had the opportunity.”
“I borrowed a tape recorder and went to Jerusalem. There, I interviewed Pablo Casals when he was ninety-six years old. It was the last interview he gave . He died three months later.
“ I also interviewed the great musicians Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim; and in the desert I interviewed members of various Bedouin tribes. ”
Diana Filer, then the executive producer of CBC Radio’s Concern series, listened to five minutes of Malka’s work and pronounced the content terrific. Ann Hunter, who is now executive producer of CBC’s Special Occasion series, listened too and says now, still slightly dazzled at the memory, “She was instant good .”
CBC broadcasted all those programs, including the Bedouin documentary, for which Malka received an Ohio Award from the US for excellence in radio programming.
Next, Malka did the now-legendary interview with Joni Mitchell for CBC’s The Entertainers . “I didn’t know I had an exclusive until Sid Adilman [entertainment columnist for the Toronto Star] called me and told me I did.”
“I knew Joni before,” she told me, “I met her when she was performing at the Riverboat years before she was famous. I thought she was a genius then, when I heard her and I thought, if there is any sense to this world, this person will be recognized.” Malka approached her then for permission to sing two early compositions. “I was so sure she would make it, I saved the serviettes where she wrote the words for me to sing. But that was many years and thousands of people before the interview and I doubt if she remembered. I never asked.”
Malka was already at a point where her work spoke quite eloquently for her, but still she worried about her English. “When I interviewed Leonard Cohen I apologized for not knowing how to speak better, and he told me that he thought it was an advantage, that I could come at the person from a sense of gut rather than a sense of polish.”
She approached that interview with the idea that there is something of the prophet in most poets. “So I asked him about fate, sort of gave him random words, and at one point he said, ‘The truth comes out most in my poetry, so if you want truth I’ll answer you in poetry.”
And I said, ‘All right. Let’s go for the trip’.
“I asked him if he was married – thinking, how can he answer this in a poem?
He leafed through his unpublished poems and said, ‘Ah, here is the answer.’
“Now if you didn’t really listen perhaps you would think it was evasive, but if you listened you would hear that the answer was indeed there…
“When I met Pablo Casals I went in with a prepared interview, he said, ‘Oh, no. Not another interview – do you know how many I’ve done in my lifetime?’ The man was ninety-six years old.
“And so my first question was ‘Why not another interview?’ and that was how it went. That’s how I work – I prepare very well, and then when I get there it assumes its own life.”
More recently, Malka has just completed her most massive project to date, A Bite of the Big Apple.
It was the radio documentation of an ill-fated musical conceived in Toronto, born on radio,christened at the Charlottetown Festival, reincarnated (as Rockabye Hamlet ) and ultimately murdered on Broadway.
For more than a year Malka haunted producers’ offices, rehearsal halls, actors’ hangouts, tape recorder running; absorbing all the insecurity, the emotional excess, the simple economics of entertainment. Then working alone, she edited more than 100 hrs of tape into four comprehensive two-hour segments that are truly astonishing for their impact and candor.
“I worked very hard to make it flow… you are talking to a very tired person,” she said when I met her New Year’s weekend, and yet she was already in the first stages of editing the special on Canadian poet Irving Layton, which was to be aired on CBC’s Special Occasion series.
Technically, she knows the business of editing well, and her documentaries show her to be truthful and uncompromising, but she also has the reputation of being admirably discreet.
“People tell me incredible things. But why do I have to use a remark that will mean a young person will not be able to go on working, or not live with his wife? The Bite Of The Big Apple already had the strength, it had the salt and pepper – so why do I need to put a knife in?”
“When I began to do this work, there were people who ‘did me a favor’ by not helping me – so that I would go back to singing…
“I still find that, being a woman, if I do something aggressive I’m criticized for being too aggressive and if I do something soft I’m criticized for being too soft.
“There are advantages though. The fact that I am a woman journalist helped me with the Bedouin story. Theirs is such a male-oriented society that a male journalist couldn’t have talked to the women – but I could. The men treated me as a foreigner and the women just treated me as a woman.”
Obviously she believes in hard work – “I have met nobody so gifted as Casals and yet he worked so hard, he always cared to nurture his God given gift. I think the more gifted a person the greater his/her sense of responsibility to work and refine the gift.”
Malka spoke to me several times of the difference between the written interview and that heard on the radio – “you must be so careful when you write, to record the nuances, the raised eyebrow, the laughing tone, the wink.” And of course, she is right in that meaning comes as much from the orchestration and choreography of speech as it does from the words themselves.
But we also spoke at length of poetry; how it can communicate clearly, simultaneously, on many levels. How it can be both simple and full.
I know Malka regrets the limitations of her English. But to me her vocabulary is ample and her speech like good poetry; simple and complex, eloquent, true.
As she might say, “It flows.”