Marika Kuzma: Singing for Survival
Marika Kuzma may have been born in Hartford, but her heart is all Ukrainian. This recent Madison resident is the daughter of Ukrainian refugees who fled the horrors of war-ravaged Europe to seek freedom here in America, and Marika has spent a career in music bringing her passion for the sounds of Ukraine to audiences all over the world.
Marika says growing up as the child of immigrants in a tight-knit community shaped a love for Ukraine and the music of her homeland at a very early age.
“Ukrainian was my first language. I was born in Hartford, but both my parents immigrated in the 1940s at the height of World War II, escaping both the Nazis and the Red Army,” says Marika. “They settled in a Ukrainian community in Hartford, and we sang constantly in Ukrainian at home.
“Ukrainians sing!” she emphasizes. “I used to tell my singers that there are some cultures in this world who sing for survival and Ukraine is one of them. It is deeply embedded in the culture. It is such a source of life, you can feel yourself vibrating. You feel yourself come alive. It is also a way of having a voice when politically oppressed.”
Marika’s talents and love of music gained her entry into some of our country’s best music programs, including the Hart School of Music and Indiana University, which has a renowned music program. Marika performed and studied in Europe and received her doctorate, settling at UC Berkeley, where she taught choral music and conducting for 25 years.
“It was fabulous teaching. The students are so bright there and culturally so open. It was this rare combination of being super, super bright and intelligent, but being inquisitive and unpretentious at the same time,” Marika says.
Marika has conducted and worked with leading international orchestras and conductors, while also spending much of that time bringing the music of Ukraine to her students, her teaching, and to her performances.
“I was trained in all the classics and went to conservatories and played Bach and Mozart, but I always tried to add a little Ukrainian to the repertoire and to help keep people aware,” Marika says. “A lot of us have worked to make the world aware and bring to them this culture that has been suppressed for so long. Ever since grad school I have always tried to include a Ukrainian selection just to raise awareness of how talented and unique Ukraine’s musical traditions really are. There’s no better way to understand a culture than to ingest it’s music.”
A 1999 trip to Ukraine, as part of UC Berkeley’s exchange program, made a huge impact on both Marika and the students on that voyage of musical discovery.
“One milestone for me was when in 1999, I took the University of California Chamber chorus on a tour. We went to Vienna, Poland, and to Lviv (Ukraine) and Prague. That group of students was incredible. We scraped together the money to fund this trip and the students were truly transformed by the experience,” Marika says. “This was after Ukraine had claimed independence and was just coming out of their darkness. The students just fell in love with the cities, especially Lviv, because it’s a smaller city but such a beautiful city.
“One of the things they would tell me—as a conductor your back is to the audience—but one of the things the students would say is, ‘My God Marika—the audience is hanging on our every word, they were mouthing along and even crying.’ They had never seen a response like that before. The audiences were so moved, that they were being seen, that they were known, seeing themselves reflected in the performance,” she continues. “The students and I still remember that trip to this day.”
Marika is proud of Ukraine’s population and is eager to make sure that their voices are heard, and heard without a filter or agenda. Marika says that love of music, food, culture, and a respect and love for the full freedoms of society are a feature of Ukraine’s culture and uniqueness.
“During the Soviet years, Ukrainian culture was very much suppressed. Those of us in the diaspora were told it was up to us, in exile, to preserve this culture. We are so proud of our culture, we love our culture and there was also this sense of responsibility,” she says. “I need to be clear: Ukraine isn’t perfect. There are dark chapters there, that can’t be forgotten.”
That sense of history is now under assault by Russian forces invading Ukraine.
“So, the feeling of many of us now, outside of being horrified as to what’s occurring, it is kind of a 9/11 for us as we witness this. It is also a sense of all this happening again,” she says. “One of the interesting things about Ukrainian culture is that women are not in the shadows. One of the top poets is a woman, one of the top composers now who is very much in the forefront, is a woman. And we want the world to know and share this.”
Marika says the current plight of Ukraine is as inspiring as it is frightening.
“We see these visions of horror, but we also see the goodness and courage of people at the same time in equal measure, but it can be hard to digest,” Marika says. “It is so heartbreaking that even if Ukraine emerges from this and is able to repel Putin’s forces, it is going to take so much time to rebuild what they had. And what they had was so magnificent.
“It is such a beautiful country. It could go in so many directions, but if Putin succeeds, he is not only going to claim the land, but also its resources and its manpower to further its aims,” she continues. “Ukraine’s revolution of dignity in 2014 was about just that: human dignity and human rights. Here’s a country that broke away from authoritarianism and immediately wrote its constitution to include freedom of religion, freedom of sexual orientation, ethnic equality—that is in its constitution. It does not send political opponents to prison or poison them or murder journalists. Their independence is what unites them. Putin is trying to divide us, but why did so many Russian speaking people move to Ukraine in the last 30 years? Because they value those freedoms and they value democracy. What unites these people is a history, but also their aspirations.”
Marika also visited Ukraine in 2016 to lecture and promote music, and that trip had no less of an impact, reinforcing her deep passion for her roots—and the country’s food, says Marika.
“I hadn’t been in many years and it was just so astounding how beautiful Ukraine had become. After all these years of Soviet occupation, and after the rebuilding to see the cultural ferment, the optimism, the entrepreneurship, it was great to see,” Marika says. “I joke that I lived in California for 30 years but the best damn salad I’ve ever had in my life were at restaurants in Ukraine. The earth there is so fertile. The produce was just incredible. So, it is just horrifying to see that being land blown up. But please remember that the people of Ukraine are resourceful and resilient.”
Marika still instructs in vocal coaching and instruction, and even dabbles in a bit of acting, having recently been part of a film shot locally, but she wants to spread her skills and experience for the sheer joy now that she has retired.
To find out more about Marika’s offerings and instruction and for links to music, visit www.marikakuzmamusician.com.