Internationally renowned, Juno Award winning jazz singer Sophie Milman is not too disappointed her latest collaborative project didn’t win a Grammy on Feb. 10.
The Russian-born, Israeli-raised, Toronto-based singer was one of the performers on Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II. The album was nominated for Best World Music Album at the 2019 Grammy Awards.
“Being at the Grammys was so much fun,” Milman said from Los Angeles where she was attending the ceremony. “The vibe was fun and shockingly casual. I hung out with some of my favourite jazz and classical musicians and everyone was so happy to be there. What could have been better?”
Yiddish Glory is an extraordinary program based on songs collected by Moisei Beregovsky, a Soviet ethnomusicologist, toward creating a record of what life was like for Jews across eastern Europe from 1943 to 1947. They feature perspectives from Red Army soldiers and the Jewish families who awaited their return from war. U of T professor Anna Shternshis came across the aging paper documents of these songs in the Ukraine National Library. The raw emotional ballads convey despair, hope, humour, bravery, resistance and revenge.
“The stories that are captured in these songs are essentially my families stories. The project resonated with me. The real snag was the fact that they were going to record two weeks after I was due with my daughter and I don’t speak any Yiddish,” said Milman.
Through sleepless nights Milman learned Yiddish phonetically. “Some of the songs that I sing are about maintaining normal life, about girls walking through the forest dreaming of their boyfriends who are fighting Hitler,” explained Milman.
“There is a bit of naïve innocence because we have understood these songs are written by ordinary people, not by professional song writers. Not by people contemplating the war post-fact but by people who are living it and being human. To love is human even during the war. To laugh is human, to miss is human, to suffer is human and when the worst things happen come together is very human that’s what spoke to me.”
Milman said just being nominated was “amazing! Our category was very competitive and while it would have been wonderful to win, the level of musicianship we were up against was high.”
She said the project wasn’t meant to find commercial appeal. “It’s a historical project that captures the ravages of the Second World War and what happened to Soviet Jews. Almost everyone in the world music category has something important to say and I’m just happy that important, relevant music is getting attention. Plus, our project was meant to go beyond the Jewish community to tell the story of victims and heroes of war, past and present, who have found joy and solace through music. The nomination will help continue to achieve that. “
(Video: Yiddish Glory Sophie Milman – Chuvasher Tekhter tells the story of the draft and service of women in the Red Army during World War II.)
In spite of the enormity of Milman’s achievements, (she’s recorded four albums, and won a Juno in 2008) the 35-year old says that her kids are her proudest productions to date. Since 2013, Milman has been dedicating herself to raising her family with her husband Casey Chisick, an entertainment lawyer. Their home life is alive with music.
“I have a piano and a nice bright room where I do vocal exercises and the kids climb all over me,” Milman says with a laugh. “My 5 ½ year old son is an amazing singer. He’s been able to sing complicated melodies in tune since he was about a year old, which is mind blowing. I have him in piano lessons and we practice every day. My little daughter is developing a good ear. We never really limit them to just kids’ music. They are starting to tell the difference between popular music, jazz and R&B. It’s very interesting to see the positive effect music has on their brains and their development.”
The kids understand that mom is a professional singer. “My son has seen me perform in Moscow and Italy,” said Milman.
“During the set break I gargle with salt, soda and honey. It soothes my voice, and about a year ago my son came backstage and said, ‘What’s Mommy doing?’ When we took him to see another show, there was a set break and he called it a ‘gargle break’ because he assumes every time musicians leave the stage they gargle. These moments are so cute.”
Looking back, Milman has early memories in Russia of her grandfather, who was a cantor at synagogue. Her family emigrated to Israel when she was seven-years-old. Her parents recognized their daughter’s talent early. At 15, Milman and her family moved to Canada and settled in Toronto. By this time, Milman was enjoying the music of jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee, and Ray Charles.
Milman insists that she didn’t find jazz. Jazz found her. “I was very much the immigrant girl and my parents were struggling, yet supportive. I understood early on that this jazz world music, European kind of music was my medium of expression,” said Milman.
“Always singing for fun, it really kicked into high gear when I was in the middle of first year-university. It was a very lucky coincidence that came out of left field and I was essentially assigned to a record deal, things just took off from there.”
Among the other performers on the album was local teenager Isaac Rosenberg, who the CJN is currently in the midst of setting up an interview with.