As she croons the Yiddish love song “In der Finster,” or “In the Darkness,” the audience cannot but be swept away by the real darkness that envelops Kateryna Kolcova-Tlusta.
Kolcova-Tlusta, likely the only Ukrainian female singer in the Czech Republic to focus exclusively on Jewish music, has been blind since early childhood, the result of a severe case of cataracts.
But the singer’s compelling voice — whether it be performing Ukrainian folk, Hebrew hymns or Yiddish tunes — make her lack of sight seem almost secondary.
The reaction Kolcova-Tlusta, 35, received recently at the Prague Jewish Museum’s educational institute while performing “In der Finster” apparently is not uncommon.
The Canadian klezmer hip-hop star Josh Dolgin, known as Socalled, recalled hearing Kolcova-Tlusta at a musical workshop in London.
“During an open-mic thing with a bunch of performers, there appeared on the stage this lady wearing dark sunglasses sitting at the piano,” Dolgin wrote in an e-mail interview with JTA.
“She began to sing and the whole room was pure emotion; all sorts of people were crying. All of the staff of the workshop was completely blown away, just standing there totally humbled by her incredible level of pure artistry, pure soul meeting pure music. … I knew I had to work with her at that moment.”
Dolgin plays accordion and piano on Kolcova-Tlusta’s CD “Kateryna/Inspiration Klezmer,” released last fall.
Kolcova-Tlusta moved to Prague from Kiev in 1994 to study at the Deyl Conservatory, then one of the few music schools in the former Eastern Bloc that would accept a blind student.
“Obviously it’s a little tricky when you can’t actually see the sheet music,” she said.
Kolcova-Tlusta is Jewish but grew up in what she described as a non-Jewish environment. Being openly observant or even culturally Jewish was something most Jews avoided in the communist Ukraine of her childhood.
“I didn’t hide my Jewish identity, but one handicap in a country like Ukraine was enough,” she said.
Kolcova-Tlusta says she is proud to have overcome the dim future predicted for her by peers. She recalls classmates telling her, “If you were beautiful and blind it would be OK.”
They called her “the spook,” she said, explaining that her eye disease also caused some slight facial abnormalities.
After the fall of communism and a revival of Jewish life began in Ukraine, Kolcova-Tlusta became friendly with a member of the Israel-Ukraine Association, and together they began to explore the vast amount of Ukrainian Jewish music that had gone undocumented and unrecorded.
She was discussing this on public Czech television one night after her move to Prague, and a well-known Czech music producer was watching. That’s how her first CD, “Yedyd Nefesh” (“Beloved Soul”), came to be produced in 2000. The collection includes songs performed in Ladino, Hebrew and Yiddish, with some adaptations of well-known standards.
A song on the CD celebrating Shabbat observance features a Serbian guitarist strumming flamenco chords. “The Last Train,” combining the haunting sounds of a departing carriage with a mournful flute is followed by Yiddish cabaret.
“Kolcova sings with a feeling rare ! in Europ ean music. … Her best moments remind me of the humble devotion of a cantor in a synagogue,” said Petr Doruzka, a veteran Czech music critic and writer who lectures on world music at Charles University in Prague.
Kolcova-Tlusta’s touch is as gripping as her deep, thick voice. On the street or in a crowded room, she greets visitors with a fierce hug or passionate grab of the hand.
That forcefulness and sunny outlook have earned her fans, as well as the admiration of a man who works for the Prague Jewish community, now her husband.
They have a 5-year-old daughter, Deborah, who has the same eye disease that led to early blindness for Kolcova-Tlusta. But the singer believes operations can prevent Deborah from losing her sight. Those operations were not an option in Ukraine, she noted.
Kolcova-Tlusta, who enrolled recently as a doctoral student in ethno-musicology at Charles University, juggles motherhood with performances in Prague and the struggle to find financing for her next project.
“It’s an awful challenge because there is no Jewish lobby here to support Jewish artists,” she said.
Along with her personal growth, Kolcova’s musical repertoire has expanded with the help of Adrienne Cooper, director of the Centre for Cultural Jewish Life at the Workmen’s Circle in New York City and one of the world’s best-known interpreters of Yiddish vocal performances.
Kolcova-Tlusta said that after working with noted musicians like Cooper, klezmer now forms the backbone of her music.
“It suits me because it merges Ukrainian and Jewish heritage,” she said. “And it’s worse than jazz — I mean once it gets in you, that’s it, you keep returning to it.”
So after releasing “Day is Near,” an all Hebrew-language CD, in 2003, Kolcova-Tlusta made “Kateryna/Inspiration Klezmer,” influenced by her musical collaborations with Alan Bern and Michael Alpert of Brave Old World, the critically acclaimed modern Jewish music and klezmer band. Balkan rhythms form an important backdrop.
The songs Kateryna/Inspiration klezmer are typical of new klezmer fusion: Non-Yiddish songs in Ukrainian clearly were influenced by Yiddish culture and vice versa.
One of the catchier tunes is “Dunaj, Dunaj” — “Danube, Danube” — a folk song from! sub-Car pathian Russia that makes the most of Kolcova’s hearty sound.
Her words seem like a plea, or a command, from the most rural hinterlands.