When Romy and Sari Lightman speak with one another, sitting side by side on a curved bench in a cafe booth or on a couch in their book-lined living room at home, they look each other and the person opposite directly in the eye. Steadily held eye contact can be unnerving.
Though the 23-year-old twin sisters may both stare intently---intensely---their individuality becomes apparent over a couple of lengthy conversations and through their music as Ghost Bees---the moniker they've used for two years or so. They've lived in Halifax for seven years---they grew up in Toronto---and are now about to release Tasseomancy, their first album (produced by Andy March, who plays on it as well, and put out on his Youth Club Records). It's comprised of six tracks (and a hidden seventh) of strange, spirited and often spooky, acoustic folk sometimes called freak folk.
"The original inspiration began when I sort of spent some time...how would you say it?" Romy asks her sister. "You were spending some time healing after, you know...," Sari prompts.
Romy finds the thread: "I had a close friend of mine that passed away," she says. "I was doing a lot of healing work and I was spending a lot of time with this one woman who kept saying to me, 'There's something about your ancestry, especially on the matrilineal side you should really look into.' She kept saying, 'It's a great-great-grandmother.' And I didn't really know what she was talking about."
The woman who revealed this to Romy was a "Celtic shaman," Nancy Sherwood, a healer who works on the South Shore. This was a few summers ago, Romy recounts, though the sisters still visit Sherwood and fellow practitioner, David Cameron. (They live and work near The Ovens and, among other things, hold sweats, Romy says.) The great-great-grandmother at the heart of the revelation---and appearing in an old family photo on the cover of Tasseomancy---is Clara Chernos, their maternal great-great-grandmother. Sari and Romy eventually learned about Clara from their own grandmother, Merle (mother of their mother, Ryla).
Clara lived in a Russian village near what was then the Latvian border and survived the pogroms---a term referring to anti-Semitic riots which states throughout history allowed to happen, but also an event, a tool of violent oppression that has come to be most strongly identified with 19th-century Russia, the era in which Clara lived. She lost her parents in the pogroms and married young.
"Before she moved to Canada she married a man twice her age that they used to call The Grandfather," Romy continues. They had several children. Eventually, "he moved here first and she stayed. The real kicker I guess was, simultaneously, he was beginning an affair with the landlady at the place he was living in Toronto. And also there was another pogrom in the village."
Clara gathered her children into hiding with the exception of a son, who was "forgotten," as the song says, in the haste to escape the house, a target for the coming mob. When she rushed back to the house, Clara found her boy in his cradle covered in glass. Already notified of her husband's adultery, the latest pogrom was the last straw for Clara. She moved the rest of the family to Canada.
On the title track, Clara's beautifully evoked with her "shtetl skin and rosewood eyes/an eighteen-year-old orphan bride." The story is underscored by a wonderful waltz-and-strings arrangement (mandolin, guitar, viola and violin) that calls up the mournful but still uplifting---melancholic---mood of Jewish music.
"Tasseomancy," the term for the practice of tealeaf reading, was a skill of Clara's and one she used to make income for her family, according to her great-great-granddaughters. She came to it, Romy says, "because at that time there was a lot of mysticism in Judaism in Russia."
There was more to Clara too. "She was a singer and maybe if things had gone differently for her...she would've led a far more creative life," Sari says.
Romy and Sari Lightman sang throughout their childhood. The former remembers a time when their great-grandfather, who lived until they were 11 or 12 years old, made the connection between past and present in the family---a connection the Ghost Bees are illuminating on their debut release. "I used to sing in the synagogue, the temple that we used to go to," Romy recalls, "and he actually came one night and he turned to my grandmother and said, 'She has the same voice as her...Clara, our great-great-grandmother."
Learning of a bond with a major forbearer and making music that explores and celebrates it with her sister Sari appears to have played a role in Romy's healing, though she's careful not to overstate it. "It was almost like this obligation---not that guilt-infused obligation---but just in the sense of...doing some healing work for our ancestors," she says. "It just kind of seems like something we're all a part of so we want the story to continue."
As Romy sounds like Clara, it's difficult to tell who's who on the record. While closely matched, there are audible differences. One has a more stage-musical, character-driven voice---a style you might hear on Broadway, something these musicians grew up with, apparently. Another seems more akin to the singer-songwriter. But then just when you think you're on the trail, you lose it. For example, on "Sinai," the song named after the Toronto hospital (Mount Sinai) where they were born (Romy, a few minutes before Sari) in 1985, both assume a stage-like chorus sound, belting out the refrain, "You came tumbling and I was sorry." Sari got stuck in birth and urgent measures had to be taken to birth her.
"We usually fight about it," Romy laughs about who takes what vocal part. If one comes up with the melody, the other works on the harmony, unless one or the other, or both, gets stuck. The pair's voices harmonize beautifully.
While Sari wrote the majority of the songs on Tasseomancy (except for the secret song), both Lightmans have full complements of songs that are part of the live set. Both sing and play guitar, while Sari also picks up the mandolin and banjo on the record and live. "We go through stages where all the songs in a set are Romy songs, and then there'll be times when they're all mine."
The fact that Sari writes a song such as the title track, which sprung originally from personal and individual pain Romy experienced, makes sense to these two. "Our lives are pretty interconnected," Romy says.
Earlier this year, Sari took a trip to Israel, where she met other young sojourners looking to understand ancestral roots. "People were talking about their names, what their names meant," she says. "In Judaism everyone's named after a dead relative or ancestor and the more and more we spoke about what our names meant and where they came from, it brought out the idea that we're carrying with us, whether we realize it or not, all this ancestry."
And it was a working vacation too. "I went to some really beautiful places, the Dead Sea: I spent some time by myself there. I just wanted to write and have some new ideas for some new songs." She hopes to start completing the songs over the next few months, as they go on tour, crossing Canada in April and May as a start.
At the same time, Sari saw the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians writ large. She was there on March 6 when eight rabbinical students were shot and killed in the library of their Jerusalem religious school.
"That was really hard for me because I was in the neighbourhood and my friends had studied at that yeshiva," she says.
She watched the intense mourning, followed right after by Israeli citizens returning to the streets en masse. "I was just...a traveller and I was able to be afraid when I found out there was a shooting. I felt really scared. My friends who were living there, they couldn't be scared because that's their life," Sari says.
When she visited the West Bank, she heard people condemn the shootings. It's also weighed heavy on her to learn in the news earlier in the week of this conversation that the death toll among Palestinians had just increased by another 200 or so.
While her sister bears the wariness of the recent traveller, Romy is more direct in her criticism of Israel---Zionism, not Judaism, they're both careful to point out.
"They're breeding their citizens to be child soldiers by the time they go to school," Romy says.
"But both sides are though," Sari counters.
This is the only time disagreement disrupts the easy flow of conversation.
Twins are evil. At the least they're strange and suspect. Or so they are in movies, from Kubrick's The Shining---with the creepy blonde-haired girls beckoning young Danny to "come play with us, Danny, forever and ever..."---to Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, in which Jeremy Irons plays twin brother-gynecological surgeons who basically lose it in lockstep (the scene where they revert to childhood and demand "orange pop" is particularly scary).
Movies, especially horror---from Bela Lugosi-billed classics through the original Lost Boys, The Exorcist and much in between and after---were part of Romy and Sari Lightman's upbringing, according to their father, Jon Lightman. The effect has seeped into their music, he says. "The haunting quality, the spooky quality, comes from growing up in this house because I'm a huge horror buff, a vintage film buff primarily, but they were introduced early to horror films, which they love, they crave," Lightman pere says on the phone from Toronto, where he's a teacher.
"Even as kids we always had this fascination with death and the supernatural," Sari says. "We had a club as kids where we told other kids that we could see ghosts and that spirits inhabited the dolls that lived in this plastic bag in our basement."
All this, the acceptance of death in history and horror, not to mention their appreciation and investigation of family ancestry, might suggest a maturity for their 23 years. Jon Lightman's heard the "old-soul" tag put to his daughters. "People have said that about them. I'm not sure I see it. But I am fascinated by the lyrics. That's the fascinating part, where all this stuff comes from.
"They have a huge range of ideas. On this first album there's everything from Vietnam to their birth story and fables---Sari wrote that one, um, "Erl King.""
That's pretty cool when your dad knows the names of your songs and can tell a reporter that one, "Erl King," is actually an adaptation of a poem by German writer Goethe, whose life straddled the 18th and 19th centuries. And the proclamation in that song, "Father! Father! I fear for my soul as you should," doesn't freak him out, just a teensy bit? No, he says. "They had a fascination with death from a very early age. We all make fun of it now. If they saw someone on TV, they always asked the question, 'Is that guy dead? Is he alive or is he dead?'"
Tasseomancy also includes "Goldfish and Metermaids," a song that draws on recent history in Vietnam, particularly the Vietnam War, from a trip they took there a few years ago, while studying in Thailand (through a program at Peterborough's Trent University). Another, "Tear Tassel Ogre Heart," visits Pol Pot's death-regime in Cambodia, not to revel in the gore and guts like in a horror flick, but to know how to tell the difference from the fake and the real. Most importantly, to point out how wrong it is in the real world and to reach back and let those lost and fallen to violence know they're not forgotten.
Visuals are important to the Ghost Bees. Apart from the cover image of Clara on the cake, made especially for the occasion, Amber Phelps Bondaroff designed the inside liner pages, using gouache paints and technical pens to create a series of illuminated texts.
Phelps Bondaroff, a multidisciplinary artist, wrote the words for each song in white ink against blues and greens of variously oceanic, forest and dusky shades. She traps the words in a bulbous teapot and somewhere in internal-body structures (a womb, a menacing, gaping mouth of a predatory fish or plant).
"It was the dead of winter and I was just sitting in my studio working," Phelps Bondaroff says. She welcomed the "hands-on" use of paint and pen as she was completing a digital project as part of a Centre For Art Tapes program.
"The lyrics evoke so many images," she says, adding how they also fit in with her own practice, which springs out as a "manifestation of my personal anxieties."
The third Ghost Bee, Phelps Bondaroff also grew up Jewish, though in Calgary. She toured with the band this past fall and will set off on this spring and early summer's version. While playing with Fall Horsie, the viola player remembers the first time she saw them. "I was totally taken aback," Phelps says about that show at the Bus Stop Theatre. "The whole room was completely silent. Everyone was completely enthralled."
Jon Lightman, who was part of Rotunda, a mime and comedic theatre group, can relate to that sensation of seeing his own daughters onstage. "They communicate in this very personal, sublime way where they're interacting at this deep, profound level that I can't even begin to imagine," he says. "They're constantly looking at each other and signalling each other. Man, it's very intense."