Sjef Frenken was born in Amsterdam, the capital of The Netherlands, in 1935, to the delight of his parents, but not that of the family dog Birrie, who became very jealous. His parents tossed a coin, the dog lost and was given away.
He spent the war years in Limburg (the southern-most, hangey-down part of The Netherlands) where his parents came from and where he learned his mother-tongue.
In 1946 he moved back to North Holland. Three years later the family took him to live in Curacao, where he had a wonderful time, utterly neglecting his studies. His parents then made the mistake of presenting him with an ultimatum: ‘If you continue to get bad marks, we’re going to send you to school with the Jesuits in Canada.' Young Sjef thought that was a good bargain, and promptly flunked his year. In accordance with the parental ukase, he was dispatched to Canada, where he landed in late August 1951, and proceeded for the next two years to make a reasonable academic showing at (the now defunct) Regiopolis College in Kingston, Ontario (which, despite the name, was actually a high school, although it did have a university charter).
He then attended Loyola College in Montreal for a few desultory years, and made a fine set of friends, a few of whom tried, but evidently failed, to keep him on the straight and narrow. A magazine article then drew his attention to a course in Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson in Toronto. He was accepted and began his three years of study there in 1957. During his last two years he worked part-time at CHFI-FM.
After graduating from Ryerson in 1960, he worked for three years at CFRA-FM (later CFMO-FM) in Ottawa, and then for three years at CHUM-FM (then a Classical Music-Fine Arts station) in Toronto. In 1967 he took up studying again at the University of Ottawa, working part-time at the CBC’s AM, FM and TV stations there.
The year 1970 found him in Aruba. A former colleague who had tracked him down, persuaded him to leave that island for a position with the Canadian Radio-Television Commission, where he worked from 1971 to 1995, in various capacities, mainly relating to management and policy development in the area of broadcasting.
After his retirement, he was a visiting professor in Communications at the University of Ottawa for one year, and a private consultant on matters relating to broadcasting for several years after. Since then he has devoted most of his time to music.
He considers himself a happy and lucky man, and hopes to stay that way.
Sjef Frenken has been making music since he got a mouth organ for his 6th birthday. It wasn’t long before he traded up to a tiny button accordion, followed by a small piano-key accordion, and finally a full-fledged 120-bass-button accordion. When he was 16, his family got a piano, and since then it has been difficult to keep him away from a horizontal keyboard. A total of six weeks’ instruction on that instrument never got in the way of his enthusiasm.
He began composing in a more organized fashion while at Regiopolis, sometimes as a result of teenage romances (“Anneke” and “Thelma” are two instrumental outcomes), sometimes out of a concern for impending catastrophes (“Lament for the Survivors of an Atom-bombed Civilization”) -- remember, those were the Cold War and bomb-shelter years -- but most often for no reason at all.
He didn’t start putting words to his tunes until the early ‘60s, after he purchased for $25 a fine Mason & Riche upright grand, for which CFRA with the departure of the Happy Wanderers no longer had a use. On it he has composed some 60 grown-up (can’t use “adult” as it now has a pejorative meaning) songs all by himself, and another 50 with the help of various lyricists. In addition he has set some 40 poems by (mostly) well-known poets to music, and written a mass in a ‘popular’ idiom. (He also once obtained for $ 11 a worn, but still functional Knabe salon grand, which he sold at a 36% profit ($ 15) to Alan Frazer who said he was going to give it to the other half of the Frazer-and-de Bolt folk duo. I have it on good authority Daisy de Bolt’s that he did.)
One instrumental ‘Steel String” (Banff label RBS 1162 no longer available) was recorded by the late Ken Davidson, then a member of The Happy Wanderers.
This is My Island (with text by Elizabeth Lane) was recorded first by the Calamity Brothers, and subsequently used in this version in the 1975 NFB documentary ‘Eastern Graphic’. It was later sung by the Irish Rovers in their TV special on Prince Edward Island.
Several of his Christmas songs have been performed in the Ottawa area over the years. His ‘From Afar’ was given its premiere by the Ottawa Separate School Board’s Children’s Choir (under the direction of Mary Ann Dunn) in the foyer of the National Gallery, and has been sung since in several churches. It is currently available on a compilation CD (See Music Available). Other publicly performed Christmas songs include “The Magi”, “May Your Chimney”, and “Celebrate the Birth” (the latter two to texts by Marjorie McKenna).
Lately he has been providing music for some of the lyrics written by David Simmonds (who on his own has written more than 110 songs in the past five years).
The CD ‘David Simmonds’ GREATEST HITS with 19 BONUS TRACKS’, contains one of their collaborations (Choo-Choo Man, a poke at the Sponsorship Scandal and the Gommery Inquiry) and one of Sjef’s performing David’s “It’s Hard Enough”. This CD is available from Rasputin’s.
A tribute album to David Simmonds by various Ottawa area singer-songwriters (The Parlour Recordings) is now available. On it Sjef Frenken sings and plays two of David’s songs: “The Most of You and Me” and “Municipal Wisdom”. This CD is available from Rasputin’s, The Ottawa Folklore Centre and Compact Music.
Sjef’s particular interest, however, is setting to music poems for children by Victorian and Edwardian writers, resulting to date in some 250 songs.
Sjef Frenken's first manifestation in this regard occurred in grade 7 when for a class assignment he versified a story about a mayor who, after an ill-prepared fire department bungled the handling of a local blaze, insisted that the town's fire chief conduct rehearsals with his crew the day before any subsequent fire occurred.
Ever since then verses (some poetry, some doggerel) have trickled out of his pen.
He has also written a few short stories, and continues to scribble a series of short sketches under the title “My Lunches with Jack” for the website grubstreet.ca.
In 2006 he completed a translation from the Dutch of his father's reminiscences of his youth 'Images of My Childhood' ('Beelden Uit Mijn Kinderjaren'). He has also translated his father account of his years as a pilot for KLM ("Piet Soer and Others of the Old East-Indies line"), and a collection of stories about his years as a prisoner of war, a medical doctor in the West Indies, and some more of his adventures as a pilot (Maria Rosario and Other Stories).