M For Montreal: Balaklava Blues are on the Ukrainian Culture Frontline

Interview by Stephan Boissonneault
Genres and styles : EDM / Trance

Additional Information

Balaklava Blues blends EDM and trance with ancient Ukrainian folk songs, backed by a significant multimedia show. With the carnage taking place in Ukraine right now, their show is also about revolution and giving a huge F-you to Putin, but also preserving Ukrainian folk songs that are thousands of years old and sharing them with the world. The trio is made up of husband and wife, Mark and Marichka Marczyk, and their bandmate/friend Oskar Lambarri.

Before their performance at M For Montreal, Balaklava Blues did a short and tumultuous guerrilla tour to Ukraine. The idea was to play music in Ukraine, but also take a trip through checkpoints and destroyed villages to visit Marichka’s brother, who was stationed by Izium. They traveled with a humanitarian aid colony through a war-torn Ukraine, but the most dangerous part of their trip was ironically in the centre of the nation’s capital, Kyiv, on the morning of October 10. Russian air strikes landed rockets a mere 2 blocks from the hotel the band was staying in.

Our conversation with Mark and Marichka Marczyk was a heavy one, but could also be called inspiring. People in Ukraine are not letting this war define them and though much of the day is for the war effort, Mark especially, was surprised to see people go on with their daily lives. “They’re pissed off this is happening, but they’re not letting it control their lives,” he says. It just shows how important music is in these times, including Balaklava Blues’ new album, LET ME OUT. We chatted with them about their origins and their musical importance before their performance at M For Montreal.

PAN M 360: I know you’re both in The Lemon Bucket Orkestra but how did Balaklava Blues form?

Marichka Marczyk: It’s a kind of continuation of this project [Lemon Bucket] because the Balaklava Blues is mostly dedicated to what happened after the revolution.

Mark Marczyk: If I take a more philosophic approach, music is like a reflection of the life that you’re living and the feelings that you’re going through. And I think at that time, what Marichka was talking about, after the revolution, and then into the war in Ukraine, our life started to look drastically different than it had to that point. And the music that we were playing wasn’t reflecting that life anymore. We needed a new outlet to be able to have to process deal with and explore creatively. For me as a Canadian, I was sort of first got thrown into like the middle of a revolution and then war and then working with the diaspora to support that in ways. And then, for Marichka as a refugee, and as a Ukrainian now living in Canada as an immigrant … there’s a whole bunch of different layers that we needed to unpack. And so we created Balaklava Blues to do that.

PAN M 360: And you two met during the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine in 2014. What was that experience like? Did you know you were both musicians?

Marichka Marczyk: We didn’t even talk about music until much later and then we sang one song together and were like ‘Oh my God’ this is a perfect match.

Mark Marczyk: She knew that I was a musician because I was at the time recording musicians, like traditional folk musicians, to include in the score of a film. So there was that initial point of contact. But it sort of went outside of all that. When you’re in the middle of protests of that scale, that ended up being a revolution that actually successfully overthrows a corrupt president after a serious amount of violence and loss. And that ends up leading to a war that is now turning into the biggest war in Europe, since the Second World War, music is like a soundtrack to that.

I can be sensationalistic about the revolution and tell you about the burning barricades and the riot cops and the guys that were being shot by snipers. Or shoveling snow into barricades or we can be romantic about it and talk about the painting of the shields and the free tattoos, dancing to stay warm under the underpasses, and people sharing food and everything that they had, and clothes and everybody pitching in. You know, there’s so there are different ways that you can sort of paint it, but the bottom line is it left a huge, huge impression on us.

PAN M 360: And you recently went back to Ukraine and a day after you played there was a bombing not like maybe a couple of blocks from where you were standing. To me, being here in Canada, it’s crazy to me that live concerts are still happening during war. I’m happy to hear that they are because people need distractions and to feel united, but a bomb dropping a day after you play a concert is insane.

Marichka Marczyk: Yeah it is, but it’s as you say important. It’s very important, but it’s not about feeling you know, united when we’re playing music in the frontline. I think what we realized it’s about is feeling like you’re home. It’s reminding you of home. When you’re in that absolutely different world with different roles and different relationships, everything is just crazy different. You’re living a different life. And you’re kind of in it for eight months and you start to forget about like how to be normal, normal regular people live in normal life at home hearing some music.

Balaklava Blues playing FME, Rouyn-Noranda

PAN M 360: So did that feeling of wanting to bring home through music lead to the decision of going back to Ukraine? Marichka, I know your brother is on the frontline as well.

Marichka Marczyk: Yes to visit my brother who is fighting, and play for him and his friends.

Mark Marczyk: You know, before we went, we did a big fundraising concert so that we could buy a truck for Max and his battalion, and then we went on with the humanitarian aid convoy to the frontline to deliver that stuff. But for me, what was actually the most emotional and maybe illogical, but the most human part of it was the way Marchika described it to me originally when she told me we should go. She said, “I want to bring him a piece of cake.” Because the thing that he said he wanted, most of all, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, bring me a bulletproof vest, or I need warm winter clothes. It’s like, ‘I want a piece of cake. Baked from home.’

PAN M 360: And you two brought that cake all the way through the checkpoints?

Mark Marczyk: Yeah. Imagine Marichka traveling for the 23 hours that it took to get across the country through 40 block posts, on like rickety roads going through all sorts of detours because bridges had been bombed. And she has this cake on her shaking on her lap. Then getting to this busted out, complete ghost town, to the gas station, with bombed-out vehicles that are all being torn apart for spare parts, and where they’re stationed. And being like, ‘Here you go, here’s a cake and a hug’ and just this like, moment of joy and everybody eating the cake and us playing traditional music, with the fire going, and some like food being barbecued.

PAN M 360: Going back to that feeling of home Marichka was talking about.

Mark Marczyk: Exactly. That feeling of we know this isn’t normal. We’re away from our home. Our family is in Poland. Everybody is uprooted in one way or another. And whether it’s on the frontline or in the centre of the city, or in a cave that’s also being bombed, people want a sense of home. Feeling ‘I’m not alone. My life still has a sense of normalcy. It’s not only darkness.’

Marichka Marczyk: It was really emotional for me to visit my brother because it was like three years since I had seen him. And then here I am with this cake.

PAN M 360: I’m sure in moments like that it’s really hard to process what’s actually going on and then when you go back and you’re no longer in the thick of it, you can.

Mark Marczyk: Oskar, our drummer, and third member, was actually smoking on the balcony in the hotel when the rocket hit Kyiv. So he saw it coming and hit the building. But it’s hard to react. It was like ‘OK I guess we should go to the bomb shelter. Some people are just continuing with their normal life. Then we went to Portugal to perform at WOMEX [a big international world music festival] and Oskar was smoking on the balcony again and he comes back and says ‘It just hit me.’ There’s still a similar European vibe to Ukraine and Portugal, and he forgot where he was for a second. And he just kept looking up expecting to see something explode.

PAN M 360: It’s also heartbreaking, but also powerful to hear that people in Ukraine are still going on with their daily lives and not just living in fear from a bomb attack.

Mark Marczyk: It’s more of a determination. Because when these bombings are happening, like you see, people are pissed. Like they’re upset and it’s a thing that is empowering as you said. It’s not letting that anger turn into fear or apathy or depression. They’re turning that anger into action, determination, and willpower. it’s a very like both individual but then also a collective decision that ‘We will win. That feeling is unbelievable. ‘I’m just gonna go do my own thing because these people aren’t going to fuck with me. Or somebody else will be like, ‘We’re going to win but right now, I need to get in the bomb shelter because I can’t do anything because I gotta survive so I can kick ass. Or I’m gonna join the military and fight right now, even though I’m a beekeeper in my normal life.

PAN M 360: Getting into music, and this new album, LET ME OUT, these songs are a reworking of traditional Ukrainian folk songs. Marichka I know to school for ethnomusicology so you must have a database of these traditional songs?

Marichka Marczyk: Yes. What we did when we collected them was canoeing in the summer, like the whole summer, to different groups of people to collect the songs in the river. So we would just stop to be making the camp and collect the song in the villages. And we did that year by year, in the summer only. And so this is a collection not only by me but from my different ethnomusicologists. These songs are about calling different gods and spirits or calling summer or spring, or like a lot of songs about love. But of course, there are also tragedies and it can in some cases be because of oppression, oppression from a political force.

PAN M 360: And where did the idea to add EDM and trance music to these traditional songs come from?

Marichka Marczyk: Well, I am living in this tradition of passing down songs for almost 30 years, in my life, like deeply. So I have this, this soul spirit. So this is my life. And like, in my artistic life, I always did something with these songs, but mostly just think it like in their original form. But then, when I met Mark, we decided, like, let’s combine these two different cultures.

Mark Marczyk: There’s a political and emotional reason for wanting to continue to go deep into these Ukrainian songs. But like hip-hop and trap, they come from really traumatized cultures. Right? And what’s amazing about it is that they come from these traumatized cultures that turn that pain into joy and power. EDM is on a completely different spectrum but also the same. It takes the boredom of the middle class, a suburbia kind of thing, and turns it into this sort of like roller coaster ride that is predictable yet very powerful with these aggressive sounds. Dubstep is tied to metal as well, and it felt like something worth exploring in the context of war. That’s why we named the band Balaklava Blues; because blues is the ultimate form that sort of did that. Started with people that were basically singing through the worst possible experience that any human can feel, and then turning it into a source of empowerment, expression, and humanity. That’s just what we wanted to achieve with our music and what we feel Ukrainian music has in it and what we wanted to share.

Balaklava Blues plays M For Montreal Nov. 17 at Casa Del Popolo. TICKETS HERE

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