Mark Marczyk, BA’02, knows a talented painter in his hometown of Toronto. “She even has a piece in the Royal Ontario Museum,” he notes. “I recently asked her, ‘Are you working on something?’
“She said, ‘No. I can’t paint right now. I’m packing aid boxes’.”
As a fellow Ukrainian-Canadian, Marczyk knew exactly what she meant. He is one half of the Toronto-by-way-of-Kyiv music duo Balaklava Blues with wife Marichka. In 2022, like other Ukrainians around the world, they enlisted. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine left them with no choice.
Marczyk has been busy working the phone in the hopes of organizing a Live Aid-type benefit show in Toronto. Similar shows are already being staged in Europe. “People [there] are actually seeing physical refugees, and there’s no sea between them and the crisis,” says Marczyk. Members of his wife’s family had to flee Ukraine. His brother-in-law stayed behind to help fight.
“We knew [this] was coming before it came,” says Marczyk of the invasion. “When we won the revolution” – the Revolution of Dignity protests that drove former president Viktor Yanukovych (widely seen as Vladimir Putin’s preferred pick as Ukraine’s leader) from office in 2014 – “and then Crimea was annexed and the Donbas and no reaction from the West.”
Marczyk was in Ukraine for the Revolution of Dignity. He met and fell in love with Marichka while they both took part in the protests. In a 2018 interview with Vice, Mark said, “The most date-like thing we did was a combat military training. We practiced CPR on plastic dolls and crawled on the ground during attack simulations.”
They travelled back to Canada together. “We understood we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.”
The couple drew on their experiences during the protests to create Counting Sheep, an immersive theatrical experience that captures the excitement, danger and uncertainty of the Revolution of Dignity. The production won several awards at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has been performed in Canada, the U.S., Britain and Germany.
Upon her arrival in Toronto, Marichka joined Mark’s band, the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, a self-described “Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Party-Punk-Super Band” which has picked up a Canadian Folk Music Award and two Juno Award nominations for its albums. The group performed a benefit concert at Toronto’s Opera House in March with all proceeds going toward humanitarian relief efforts in Ukraine.
The Marczyks’ work with Balaklava Blues blends Ukrainian folk music together with EDM, trap and dub step. Mark believes that performing music with such strong Ukrainian roots is a political act in itself at a time when Putin has questioned whether Ukraine is really a country at all. The couple’s newly released single “Shelter Our Sky,” was written two years ago, and its video was filmed before the war.
It is an austere elegy with a four-note piano figure. In the video, the couple sits side-by-side at the piano in full formal dress – tuxedo, ballgown – until the image flickers from those outfits to full military combat gear. Here is Mark in a topknot, now in a helmet. Here’s Marichka in black high heels, then combat boots.
Mark and Marichka were recently invited to provide the soundtrack to a provocative theatrical piece called Dogs of War by the Belarus Free Theatre – dubbed “one of the world’s bravest theatre companies” – at the Barbican Theatre in London. Why brave? The members of the troupe left their native Belarus as exiles after first performing the piece in Minsk in 2020 in defiance of Belarus’s autocratic ruler Aleksandr Lukashenko.
A folk opera based on a novel by Alhierd Bacharevic, Dogs of War is a dystopian production about an implacable scorched-earth Russian takeover of everything from Scandinavia to the Middle East. “It was a terrifying concept,” says Marczyk. The production – and the Marczyks’ music – earned rave reviews in the London press. The Guardian called it “a frightening, timely vision of a divided Europe.”
The Marczyks recently launched the “Only Fare” NFT campaign, a collaboration with photographer Peter Lusztyk, using the image of the Kyiv metro – once known as one of the world’s most beautiful subway systems, now a series of bomb shelters. “It seemed like the appropriate thing to use for humanitarian aid,” Mark says, noting the platform has sold about $50,000 worth so far. “When people get tired of war and nationalistic flags, they look towards art to make sense. and here’s this pop art image that has the kind of longevity.”
A Ukrainian military commander once told the Marczyks that their music was their “weapon” after the couple performed for his grateful soldiers.
“Fighting on the cultural front is one of the most important decisions of my life,” says Mark Marczyk.
“We don’t have any delusions that a song can change the world,” he says. “But you have to try.”