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Mark Marczyk’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra: Music From the Front Lines of Ukraine

Jeff Kaliss on February 1, 2018
Lemon Bucket Orkestra | Courtesy of Lemon Bucket Orkestra

Mark Marczyk did not set out to write what’s being billed as “A Guerilla Folk Opera” about the 2014 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, or even to become a musician. Though raised as a third-generation Ukrainian in Toronto, Canada, he was far more interested in “jock culture” in high school than in either his ethnic background or the performing arts. Only after several visits to his ancestral homeland, and an encounter with his current Ukrainian wife, Maria, did Marczyk, now 32, begin to embrace the language, culture, history, and music of Ukraine, in the process reviving his childhood training on violin. The coincidental timing of those trips also put Marczyk in the midst of political turmoil which resulted in mass demonstrations involving injury and death, and the ultimate ouster of the Russia-supported Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych.

The group Marczyk had co-founded in Toronto, the Lemon Bucket Orkestra (self-described as a “Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Party-Punk-Super Band”) began to incorporate Ukrainian folk music into its repertoire, and under the direction of Mark and Maria (“Marichka”) Marczyk, they created Counting Sheep, the folk opera now on tour, with stops in February at Stanford and at Cal Performances. Mark Marczyk discussed the evolution of the piece and of his own consciousness in a phone call with SFCV from his Toronto homestead.  

How solid is the Ukrainian presence in Toronto?

There are about 250,000 Ukrainians living here, with youth and adult organizations, a lot of Ukrainian schools — both Saturday ethnic schools and everyday Catholic schools. But my parents, being kids of first-generation immigrants, just wanted to fit in. I drifted away. As soon as I hit my teen years, I stopped going to Ukrainian school, I played rugby and football.

Any music or theater?

Nope.

Mark Marczyk

How did you come to claim your ethnic heritage and get into music?

After graduating [high school] and getting more into literature and poetry and my identity at McGill University, I decided it would be worthwhile for me to see the place my family was from. I went to Ukraine, and ended up staying there. I took this course in the language and the culture and fell in love with them, very quickly and naturally. I met a group of artists, and I got into busking, street performing. A group of musicians had lost their guitar player, and I had played a few chords. When they realized I was actually terrible, they were trying to figure out how to kick me out of the group, and they found out, during one of those very, very late drunken nights, that I’d played violin as a kid. They were into folk music as a part of everyday life.

How did you feel about being immersed in Ukrainian folk music?

Very natural, like something I hadn’t found in myself but wanted to.

Tell me a bit about it.

Painting of a Hutsul man and woman in 1902 by Seweryn Obst

What I was playing at that time was from the Carpathian and Transcarpathian regions of this ethnographic group called the Hutsuls. They play violin, accordion, drum, and cimbalom, a kind of hammered dulcimer. I also found out that there’s a huge amount of polyphony in central and eastern Ukraine.

Did your facility on the violin associate you with the Carpathian tradition?

It wasn’t facility, it was the fact that I could hold the instrument. But we were young, and we wanted it to be dirty, like the Kinks.

Or the Pogues, with Celtic music.

Exactly. But then I ended up living for a couple of months in a little village, to study with a master violinist. His music reminded me of the blues, a Hutsul minor mode, with the repetition of similar verses, riffs, and forms, and a singular voice, wailing.

About what?

Anything, just like the blues: lost love, the mountains, the landscape, work. For two months, I’d wake in the morning, milk the cows, and play all day. Then I went back to study writing, in 2010. I did my master’s in creative writing at the Toronto campus of the University of Guelph. But I was really missing folk music, so I went out and met a few musicians who were just interested in finding everything, and I started a band, doing a wide variety of Eastern European music. I taught myself how to arrange, how to perform, how to organize everything. Writing took a back seat for me, music became my career.

So that became the Lemon Bucket Orkestra. Where did the name come from?

There’s a Yiddish-Russian gangster song from Odessa, on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine, and it was one of the first songs we learned as a band. It’s called “Limonchiki,” which means little lemons. “Lemons” was slang for money, and because we started as a busking band, we like to say that we put out our bucket and worked for lemons.

Lemon Bucket Orkestra | Courtesy of Lemon Bucket Orkestra

How did you assemble your folk-music repertoire?

It started from old recordings I’d collected while I was in Ukraine. I met a lot of musicians and I’d give them a flash drive and say, “please copy me that music.” In 2014, I went back [to Ukraine] to work on a film score. They wanted to have Ukrainian traditional music, but they wanted it to appeal to an American audience.

And 2014 ushered in the Maidan Revolution. Were you prepared for that?

No, I wasn’t really interested. There’d been a revolution that happened there in 2004, the Orange Revolution, and it sort of led to nothing, so I was a bit disenchanted.

What happened in 2014 to change your perspective?

The first day I got there [to Kiev], in January, the first shootings had happened, the first deaths. The whole center of the city had a massive burning barricade and a standoff between protesters and riot cops. I was in a hotel room, I turned on the TV, and it was on every channel.

Were the issues of the struggle obvious to you?

No. But I remember the director of the film saying to us, under no circumstances are you guys to go to the center, we have a job to do. So I took my backpack and went down to the protest site; I wanted to know what was happening.

What did you find out?

I was completely blown away by the level of organization. An entire village had been erected in the middle of the city, with tents, food, clothes, medical points. It had this feel of a ramshackle Cossack festival, but they had occupied city hall and other buildings. It felt like it was out of a movie that I had never seen.

What did you do about all this?

I started to blog, because I wanted to let people back home know what actually was going on. And that’s when I met my wife, Maria. She was in this folk choir who were singing on a stage, a requiem for the boys who were killed. It was the most beautiful polyphony I’d ever heard, and I was in tears immediately. Then she and I got to talking, and we found out that she had the same interest in the human side of things. We started to explore together. Every day we would meet and walk around and talk to people, I would go home and write about it in English, and she would go home and write about it in Ukrainian.

Mark and Marichka Marczyk

I posted on Facebook, deep character sketches and political background, finding the beauty and tragedy in what was happening. Of course, in the process, as often happens when you’re writing, you find your own position, and I saw it starting to lean toward empathy for the protesters. And then, in the middle of February, the shit hit the fan. This was a period to decide, was this my fight? In the end, I decided to go down and be as helpful as possible. I went back to Toronto, but then I returned to Ukraine in about a week.

Lemon Bucket must have been wondering what was going on with you.

It was scary for them. They look at somebody who’d been a reputed celebrator, with death in his eyes. But they were very supportive, and three of them came back with me. We joined Marichka and put together a sort of mini-Lemon Bucket [called Lemonchiki, with three additional Ukrainian musicians]. We spent some time traveling around [Ukraine], and we put together a repertoire of international revolution songs: an Irish song, a chantey about the Crimean war, a Bob Marley cover, a Bob Dylan song. This was that transition period when it was starting to gear up toward war. But after a month, we had to go back for a Lemon Bucket Canadian tour, with all these great massive festivals, while Maria was in Ukraine, playing for soldiers and volunteering at hospitals.

In the fall, I went back to Ukraine, and she and I spent time together doing humanitarian work, going to the front, hearing first-hand, and doing a lot more writing. At the end, we realized we wanted to formulate our experiences, with the rising profile of Lemon Bucket and Maria’s encyclopedic knowledge of music from the country that was under siege, and that’s how Counting Sheep came about. We wrote out this big long script, but we all realized we’re terrible actors, so decided to tell the story with songs and actions.

It’s mostly songs from the “left bank” of Ukraine — east of the Dnipro River — a lot of it is a capella, and some of it is instrumental songs that I arranged for Lemon Bucket, for sousaphone, trombone, trumpet, violin, piano, a big bass drum, and a darbuka [goblet drum]. Maria and I created the piece together, and she was the musical director from the singing side and the lead, together with me, but when she got pregnant, we had to look for other options. Maya was born just 12 days ago.

Lemon Bucket Orkestra in Counting Sheep

Say more about the structure of the show.

It’s all sung in Ukrainian polyphony, so there’s an operatic or musical-theater vibe to it. But there’s a chronological narrative that tells the story of the protests and how they escalated, and also the different emotional states you go through. We focused on creating scenarios where the audience members will feel swept up into those emotions, whether they’re being asked to get up and hang a flag on a tree, or are eating together, dancing, throwing bricks, getting asked to move by riot cops. You have a choice, very much like Maria and I had a choice.

Where does the name of the show come from? Does it have anything to do with the sheep masks we see in the publicity shots?

The way both Maria and I feel about the revolution is that it was so masked, so much beyond the surface. Of course, “sheep” can refer to masses moving blindly, like sheep, no matter what side you’re on. At the same time, there was this perpetual insomnia: You never know when the cops are going to attack, so you’re always awake, and that leads to this kind of dreamy surreal state. And when you can’t sleep, what do you do? You count sheep!

A scene from Counting Sheep

And I see projections behind the action.

We spent quite a bit of time compiling and editing video footage from sourced footage and shaky YouTube stuff. Everything from the dressing of the city Christmas tree with Ukrainian flags to the soup kitchens to the building and burning of the barricades to the sniper shootings.

And the relationship between the action and the music?

Ukraine has been mired in conflict for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s a strategic location in the geopolitical scheme of things, and there were many situations that warranted expression through song. Thankfully, much of that has been preserved by ethnomusicologists like my wife, so we’re able to see parallels and give new life to them in presenting our story. A lot of the music you’ll hear is very traditional, altered almost not at all, with Maria at the helm teaching us not only the pronunciation but also the inflections, the quarter tones at certain moments, the mouth positioning, the air flow, the posture, the group sound versus the individual sound. There are church songs, parts of an Eastern Orthodox tradition, a few World War II marching songs, western Ukrainian partisan army songs, and a song made during the revolution from an old wedding song.

Did I hear you say there’ll be food?

Traditional Ukrainian food. Come hungry!

Can you update us on the troubles?

Over a million people have been displaced, countless numbers of deaths and injuries, in a war that’s not really being considered a real war. The silver lining is the amount of patriotism and self-confidence is higher than it was, and there’s a sort of renaissance of Ukrainian identity among the youth. Somebody asked me, what is going to be the end of this, and I said, World War III … but that’s already started. When the whole Trump fiasco started happening, we saw the same markers of everything that happened in Ukraine with Yanukovych, and we understood that Ukraine was just a testing ground for the warfare that’s being perpetrated in the States right now. We were just guinea pigs for Russia’s plea for global domination, and for controlling the United States. 

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