Lenka Lichtenberg’s music eludes any single definition. And that is what makes it so enchanting.
Describing singer Lenka Lichtenberg’s music is like trying to catch a zephyr. This spirited newcomer to Northumberland County has explored so many different genres and styles that classifying her work is guaranteed to keep you guessing.
Lenka’s songs are exotic, ethereal, dancing. The modal melodies and sensual harmonies reach out and invite a listener to experience rather than simply listen.
Some of her music embraces her Jewish heritage. Other projects showcase her Czech upbringing. Still others add layers of world music on top of a warm Canadian sound. It’s a deliciously eclectic repertoire, and it’s not really much of a stretch to see how her journey through life, from a childhood on the stage in communist Czechoslovakia to creative harmony in a farmhouse in Bewdley, has informed and inspired her art.
WELCOME TO BEWDLEY
Lenka and her husband Rubin lived in Toronto for many years before they came to this part of the province as many do – with little clue of what was here. “We used to zoom along the 401 between Toronto and Montreal,” she says, “without ever thinking about what was on either side of the highway.” Luckily, they had friends in Baltimore who introduced them to the rolling hills of Northumberland. It didn’t take long for them to want to put down new roots.
When they discovered the property near Bewdley, with its big house and spreading fields, Lenka says it was love at first sight. The barn clinched it: this would provide the studio space she needed to create and share her music. There is an intimate performing area inside as well as a larger one outside, with the potential for open-air concerts.
Like so many Ontario heritage farmhouses, the main building is made up of several additions and restorations. Through a charming architectural quirk, a person sitting at the piano bench in the living room can look outside through windows that face in all four directions. A convergence of sensory input.
Lenka has always been fascinated with the idea of living in the country. Her husband Rubin … not so much; he’s a city boy, an accountant by profession, and he took a little convincing.
“Rubin is not really a handyman,” she says with an infectious laugh. “But I make up most of the difference.”
Rubin points out that they’ve also had lots of help from neighbours.
Whatever the rural challenges, the couple now share the familiar Watershed country feeling that coming here is like coming home for the first time and forever.
LIFE ON THE WORLD STAGE
Like her life, which has spanned continents and cultures, unrest and upheaval, Lenka’s music won’t stay still. Her projects tell a story that starts with her interpretation of traditional Yiddish folk music, inspired by her heritage and family, many of whom did not survive the Holocaust. The story moves on to Czech and Moravian folk songs, which reflect the land of her birth. The album of these songs, Masaryk, won the 2018 Independent Music Award, as well as two nominations at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.
Lenka was born in Prague, where she was a celebrated child actress and later received classical voice training at the Prague Music Conservatory. Her path took her from Bohemia to Denmark and eventually to Vancouver for university. Finally settling in Toronto, she obtained a Masters in Ethnomusicology from York University. For years she taught Music Appreciation at Ryerson University, introducing her unsuspecting students to Czech composers they might not have heard of, such as Smetana and Dvořák.
Somewhere in those busy years there was time for the marriage that is now in its fourth happy decade. And let’s not forget to mention her three children, now adults.
Lenka jumped into Yiddish music with a splash when she co-founded what she calls a “Yiddish Swing-klez Chick Band” called Sisters of Sheynville, with whom she performed across Canada, the US and Europe. Not only was that marketing tag irresistible to concert promoters, the group won the Canadian Folk Music Award for Vocal Group of the Year in 2008.
In 2010 she formed the global roots ensemble, Fray (the Yiddish word for “free”), which mixes her own roots with the Indian, Brazilian and Middle Eastern backgrounds of the band members. “I created the band when Yiddish singing was striving for a new sound,” she says. And it sounds like she helped it along.
THE THIEVES OF DREAMS
Her most ambitious and meaningful project so far – a “true milestone” in her life – began with her mother and grandmother, both Holocaust survivors. The story behind The Thieves of Dreams is beyond dramatic.
Between 1942 and 1945, Lenka’s grandparents and her mother were imprisoned in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp, about 50 kilometres north of Prague. After the war, Terezin became known for the drawings, songs and poems produced by the people who lived there, which are now regarded as a testament to the human spirit. After her mother died, Lenka discovered two battered old notebooks filled with writing by her grandmother, and she knew the verses inside were crying out to be set to music and sung.
The concept of bringing the words to life is ambitious: a multi-media happening that takes place on a stage, in an album, in a Czech-English poetry book and in a set of ink drawings by Milli Janatkova. Since the project’s theme is the resilience of women, she’s made it an all-female project and commissioned women composers to help her set the poems to music.
Resilience has been the byword of The Thieves of Dreams. Lenka was working to assemble all the parts when the pandemic struck. The work was supposed to have premiered in spring 2020 at the Music Gallery in Toronto and in Washington, D.C. Of course, it didn’t. The setback was a tough blow and Lenka was briefly discouraged. To keep the momentum going was tough. “I couldn’t find the fire in myself,” she says quietly.
She began to put everything back together, one piece at a time. And it worked: The planned launch for the CD is this Mother’s Day, May 8th.
WORDS AND MUSIC
An important part of Lenka’s composing process is deciding which instruments she needs for a given piece. She’ll bring together exactly what’s needed for the sound and colour she wants. Her classical music training left her with a love for layering harmonies and melodies, but not much experience with rhythm; so she often collaborates with internationally renowned musicians playing an array of exotic percussion instruments. It’s a true fusion of world music. Whatever she chooses, each sound must work well with her voice, which is strong but gentle. “I’m not a belter, so everything I sing must be supported by the instrumentation.”
Every album represents a new project, a journey to a new music, often a new language.
“I like unpredictable,” she says. “I like surprises.” So, does each of her albums build on the one before, or do they all go in different directions?
“I don’t know how to go in a completely different direction, even though the music has different roots,” she says. “I have certain sensibilities and preferences that are ruled by what I like and what I don’t like. One influences the other in that way.”
She likes to seek out collaboration with musicians, and the goal is “half me and half somebody else.” On The Thieves of Dreams album, half of the tracks were written by her, but the other half were by the other female composers she commissioned, thanks to generous Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council grants. “It’s about collaborating with somebody coming from a different place and enriching the whole sound,” she says.
TODAY AND ONWARD
Although she has settled in Bewdley, Lenka has never stopped moving artistically or spiritually. She notes that her parents’ upbringing during the times of Holocaust and communism have left her with a habit of thrift and efficiency and respect for time.
“I don’t rest. I don’t like sitting around,” she says. “My husband tells me ‘The minute there’s an opening, you’ll find something to fill it.’ Time is the most precious thing – the one thing we will all run out of no matter what.”
To add another layer to her life, Lenka teaches a choir at her Reconstructionist synagogue in Toronto, Darchei Noam. The ensemble consists of former members of the synagogue’s adult bat mitzvah program. For many choir members, including herself, the choir has been “a lifeline during the lockdowns.” She also co-leads and composes music for worship services.
A world music trailblazer from Prague who works with artists from around the globe, leads Shabbat services in Toronto, composes furiously and lives quietly in Bewdley?
You can listen to Lenka’s work in her recent video, “Togetherness,” based on a poem written by her grandmother when she was an inmate at Terezin. The video was filmed on the farm where Lenka and her husband have lived since December 2020.