There have been many excruciating moments for Marichka Marczyk over the past two weeks. A particularly difficult one came during rehearsal for an upcoming show in London, England.
Ms. Marczyk, who is Ukrainian-Canadian, and her husband, Mark Marczyk, who is a Canadian of Ukrainian descent, form Balaklava Blues, a Toronto-based band that performs wildly contemporary renditions of Ukrainian folk songs. The Marczyks wrote the music and will perform live for Dogs of Europe, a production by the underground Belarus Free Theatre company, which opens at London’s Barbican on Thursday.
Ms. Marczyk, who was born in Kyiv and lived in Ukraine for most of her life, was rehearsing when she received a text message from her brother: a photo of him, his wife and their four-year-old daughter before parting ways at the Ukrainian-Polish border. “Probably his last picture they had together and they were smiling with a baby. I can’t even talk about that,” she said in an interview, breaking down.
“I can’t rehearse now,” she told her colleagues. “I can’t.”
“I just went out and screamed [about] Putin.”
Mother and child are safe in Poland now. Ms. Marczyk’s brother, a beekeeper, returned to Lviv. “He is fighting now,” she said on Friday, “defending our land.”
Ukrainian-Canadian musicians are among those struggling at this devastating time: watching the news from home, terrified for family and friends, and then going on stage to play nonetheless – an almost surreal respite from the grief and rage.
For Balaklava Blues, it is particularly personal.
Ms. Marczyk has barely slept through this time, she says, trying to help people back home find refuge or shelter. Her sister and family made it to Istanbul; her mother has been in Toronto since January. “I always think, oh my God, thanks God my mom is not in Kyiv.” Many of her friends – musicians, artists – are fighting.
The Marczyks met in Maidan, Ukraine in 2014, during what’s known as the Revolution of Dignity. Mr. Marczyk had gone there from Toronto, where he was born, to explore his roots. He became devoted to the cause – which he expresses through music.
“We spent most of the early years of our relationship volunteering and then creating, eventually,” Mr. Marczyk said, from London. “Deciding to fight – not on the literal front, but on the cultural front. And trying to get across to people the seriousness of the situation. To warn that this is coming, just knowing, seeing how things had been going.”
At one point during this time, they were waiting for a bus to take them to the Donetsk Airport, where a battle was raging. They were going to fight. They began singing Ukrainian folk songs for the soldiers who had just come back. Some began crying.
“This is your weapon,” a commander, who’d previously been an actor, told them. “You’re keeping traditions that not many people know. You should stay alive to go back home and keep it,” Ms. Marczyk recalls.
The Marczyks believe the commander was right. Their musical collaboration, mostly from their home base in Toronto, is very much about sharing Ukrainian stories and music. “This is our strongest weapon that we can carry, and go across the world and sing these traditional Ukrainian powerful songs and talk about what happened in Ukraine. So this is our power. The power of music,” she says.
The duo released a new song and video, Shelter Our Sky, last week – ahead of schedule, but they couldn’t wait any longer. In the video, shot in Toronto, the couple sits at a grand piano, dressed in elegant formal wear. As they begin singing, there are disorienting flashes of them in the same positions, wearing full military gear.
The phrase “Shelter our Sky” has become a Ukrainian rallying cry. And the Marczyks have issued an open call for other artists to create images around that theme. They’ll be turned into NFTs, and sold to raise funds for the Ukrainian NGO Come Back Alive, which helps the Ukrainian military, volunteers and their families.
Another video, for their song Don’t Leave Me – a Ukrainian lullaby – features dozens of murals on Kyiv buildings, many of them political. “Most of them [are] ruined now, so I realize today we kind of made an encyclopedia of all this art in our video,” says Ms. Marczyk.
Mr. Marczyk says they use their music to counter Vladimir Putin’s denial of a Ukrainian identity.
“At the core of everything we do is Ukrainian traditional music, being tied to this thousand-year-old tradition of sharing experiences and story and trauma through song. And being in touch with that, and retelling that, and drawing on the sort of life force of those songs, and passing it on, is in itself a political act,” he says.
“It’s kind of like the sonic genetic backbone of Ukrainians. Just by virtue of singing those songs and talking and sharing their lineage – that is a direct protest to the idea that Ukraine doesn’t have a right to exist.”
This is a hard time for other Canadian musicians of Ukrainian descent – even if, like Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra violinist Adriana Lebedovich, they’ve never been to Ukraine. Lebedovich, who was born in Calgary, spoke Ukrainian before English. She has played traditional music on her violin since she started learning at three, inspired by her older Ukrainian-Canadian cousins (one is Carissa Klopoushak, with the National Arts Centre Orchestra).
“For as long as I can remember, we would get together as a family and inevitably, a jam session would break out, and so there was always Ukrainian music in the house,” says Lebedovich. “Music is a very important part of the Ukrainian culture and it’s just always been there for me.”
In the past, Lebedovich has donated hand-painted pysanky – Ukrainian Easter eggs – for the CPO’s annual fundraising auction.
In a show of solidarity, the CPO is starting all of its March concerts with Melody in A Minor, by Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk. The piece, suggested by Lebedovich, has become one of Ukraine’s spiritual anthems.
For Lebedovich, playing music feels a little bizarre at a time like this. It’s also a distraction – some semblance of normalcy. “But it certainly is weird to do normal, day-to-day things when I know that Ukraine is at war and family and friends are over there, literally in the fight for their lives,” she says.
In Vancouver, cellist Natasha Boyko was deeply moved when, during the first weekend after the invasion, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Otto Tausk began the VSO’s concerts by dedicating them to the victims.
“It was lovely, it was very touching. And the audience, they were just so supportive,” says Boyko, who is herself a refugee from Ukraine. She was born in Lviv and lived for many years in Kyiv, until she fled for Canada in 1979 with her then-husband, also a musician, and their son. The Soviet government refused to let them leave with any identification documents, and allowed them to bring only $100 and 25 kilograms of baggage each.
“We were young, we were so tired. It was like in fog,” says Boyko, who has been obsessed with the current news and gets very upset seeing the images of families fleeing Ukraine. “We were kind of refugees, but nobody was throwing bombs at us.” Among the things they had to leave behind: their instruments, including her beloved Italian cello.
Boyko’s former husband was Jewish, and they were aided by an organization helping Jews flee the Soviet Union. But they chose to emigrate to Canada, not Israel. Boyko, in the English class she took before coming to Canada, was given a National Geographic magazine that included an article about Vancouver.
The photos showed mountains and ocean and greenery. “A businessman [in the article] said, ‘It’s a great place – I can drop my kids skiing and be downtown in 20 minutes,’” she recalls. And the article mentioned that there was a symphony in Vancouver. Their choice was made.
In Vancouver, they were helped by local philanthropists, including Vancouver Recital Society founder Leila Getz, who organized a recital for Boyko at her home, where movers and shakers in the local arts community could hear her play.
Last week, the VSO played a program that included Prokofiev, led by guest conductor Anna Rakitina, who is Russian (and currently with the Boston Symphony Orchestra).
“I didn’t know what to expect,” says Boyko, who has a doctorate in music. “She was very nice – at beginning of rehearsal, acknowledging the situation. She said ‘I’m very sorry about what’s happening.’ And she has family in Kyiv.”
Boyko is having nightmares, and she often feels distracted and anxious during the day. “Sometimes I have to bring myself to... focus on what I’m doing. But it actually helps to be there, to be at work and to play.”
Still, when Tausk made that dedication, “it was hard,” says Boyko, breaking down for a moment.
“I barely hold on, but I did,” she says. The news was still so fresh. She pulled herself together and played.
“You’re professional. You put everything aside,” says Boyko. “When they say the show must go on, we have it so ingrained in us that we do not think and we just do it. … We are doing a job that is beautiful, you know? We’re so lucky to have a job like that. To be, to have a life like that.”
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