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Singer breathes new life into old Czech folk songs

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Lenka Lichtenberg returns to the music of her childhood. (File photo)

Lenka Lichtenberg’s latest recording, Masaryk, marks her return to the music of her childhood – the Czech, Moravian and Slovak folk songs she used to sing with her mother.

Lichtenberg recorded the songs in Czech. She began working on this – her seventh solo album – while her mother, Renee, was seriously ill.

“I had been coming back to the Czech Republic more and more, because my mother was ill. She needed me and I wanted to be with her. It looked like she was going to pass away. At that time, I decided that I needed to do something Czech,” Lichtenberg said.

“There were several reasons for it, but I would say her leaving the world was probably the strongest emotional reason that I had to complete that circle. She was the one who created my love for folk music in the first place.”

Lichtenberg played four of the tracks on the album for her mother just before she died in July 2016.

The folk songs on Masaryk were originally published in Národní písne, a Czech diplomat’s songbook that saw the light of day briefly during the Prague Spring in 1968.

Though he was known mainly for his political activities, Jan Masaryk was a talented pianist and arranger. In exile during the Second World War, he recorded the songs for RCA in New York in 1942, accompanied by Czech soprano Jarmila Novotná. With the recording, they hoped to gain support for their homeland, which was then occupied by the Nazis. No trace of Masaryk’s musical side is revealed in his online biographies, which Lichtenberg said she finds baffling.

In 1948, Masaryk, who was then Czechoslovakia’s foreign minister, agreed to publish transcriptions of the songs. But following his suspicious death that year, all the copies of the publication were destroyed. During the Prague Spring, a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia, the songbook was published again, only to be banned soon after.

Lichtenberg happens to own a rare copy of the original songbook, which she got as a birthday present from her mother. “That was really the only source of Czech songs I had with me when I left the country. My mom bought it just in time,” Lichtenberg said.

She and her co-arranger, Czech composer and percussionist Tomáš Reindl, have re-imagined the songs from Masaryk’s book. “They’re not a robust type of music. They’re sweet little things. And so I wanted to be delicate while presenting them. We have changed them, but kept their spirit,” Lichtenberg said.

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Masaryk was launched in Prague last November, during an event attended by Israel’s ambassador to the Czech Republic, David Meron. He was there to acknowledge the support that Masaryk gave to Israel when he was Czechoslovakia’s foreign minister. Czechoslovakia sold arms to Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. (The country was dissolved into two sovereign states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in 1993)

The daughter of a teenage Holocaust survivor, Lichtenberg was unaware she was Jewish until she was eight years old. A child star in the Prague musical theatre, Lichtenberg left Czechoslovakia a few decades ago for Vancouver, where she became a lounge singer.

On Masada, in the midst of an identity crisis, she resolved to become a Yiddish singer. Over the past 20 years, she’s established herself as a leading singer and composer of Yiddish songs. Some 10 years ago, she began fusing Jewish material with world music. In March, she received her seventh international music award – an American Independent Music Award for a song from Masaryk, a lullaby that her mother used to sing to her.

Masaryk’s father, Czechoslovakia’s first president,Tomáš Masaryk, was also a supporter of Israel. In July, Lichtenberg will be performing songs from her album in the Czech Republic, at one of the openings of a travelling exhibit that celebrates the contributions the Masaryks made to Israel.

In Toronto, where Lichtenberg is now based, her band, Masaryk Sextet, will be giving a free concert at the Church of the Redeemer on June 26 at 7 p.m., as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. It features local musicians playing an array of instruments. Their sound is on the border of jazz and world music.

For more information, visit torontojazz.com