Music

First western band to play war-torn Ukraine The Tiger Lillies say it’s their ‘duty’

Cult favourites The Tiger Lillies will be the first western act to play Ukraine since the Russian invasion. "I'm standing up against the horrible bullies, standing up against gangsters," says singer Martyn Jacques.

Martyn Jacques of The Tiger Lillies in his stage makeup

Martyn Jacques of The Tiger Lillies. Photo: Andrey Kezzyn

The morning starts with images of water spilling from Ukraine’s Nova Kakhovka dam, prompting mass evacuations and fears of large-scale devastation. It’s a reminder that the conflict is very much not over. But for one UK band at least, it’s not enough to put them off playing in the war-torn country. In a few weeks’ time, cult favourites The Tiger Lillies will become the first western act to play Ukraine since the Russian invasion, with dates in Kyiv and Lviv.

“I think it’s our duty to support Ukraine,” says Martyn Jacques – leader of the dark cabaret trio, currently on tour in England – when he catches up with The Big Issue just hours after the attack on the reservoir that provides water to Crimea and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

“We used to play there quite often. We’ve played in eastern European countries a lot through the years, so I’m quite attached to it, in a way which a lot of people in western Europe aren’t. I have very good friends in Ukraine,” Jacques adds. “We used to play in Russia a lot as well. We were popular there actually. But obviously we’re not going to be going back there now.”

Eluding easy explanation, The Tiger Lillies have been weaving dark, accordion-heavy tales from the fringes of society for more than three decades. Inspired by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “play with music” The Threepenny Opera – very much including its critique of capitalism – as well as punk, music hall and gypsy music, Jacques says they “don’t fit into any particular genre, or any particular fashion. We’re the weirdos that don’t really fit in.”

It’s partly that outsider status that has motivated Jacques to stand in solidarity with Ukraine. Having spent his younger years living in squats and hanging out “with prostitutes and junkies”, he feels a kinship with the underdog. “Weirdos get bullied quite a lot. And I think that’s kind of what’s happened: there’s a very big country attacking a much smaller country. This isn’t about politics. This is actually about bullying,” he says. “All these innocent people being murdered, children dying. I just felt, well I can’t do much – but I can at least try to express my anger.

“The Russian government are gangsters and bullies. I’m standing up against the horrible bullies, standing up against gangsters.”

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has repeatedly called for the west to increase military and economic support for Ukraine. He has not yet specifically called for an influx of Brechtian punk cabaret, but Jacques says it’s important to remember that people remain human – even in the worst of circumstances.

The Tiger Lillies
Photo: Andrey Kezzyn

“People like to have fun,” he says. “People need to have fun. During the Second World War, people still wanted have a release for all the stress and the tension. They’d go to Glenn Miller or something.

“I know that lots of people are going to be coming to the shows [in Ukraine] and they’re looking forward to it. It’s something to escape from the horrible day-to-day stress and strain and the awful things that are happening. People need to try to carry on living in some kind of normality sometimes.

A lot of people like to write or say that The Tiger Lillies are very dark. Actually, it’s quite fun and it’s quite funny. In eastern Europe we always play to standing audiences. We play to younger people, and people dance and shout and have fun.”

Jacques is quick to say that the shows won’t see the band “on the front line” –  but there are ongoing missile attacks on Kyiv. Earlier this month three people – including a child and her mother – were killed in a strike on the Ukrainian capital. “You have to live your life,” he explains, adding that their dates in Colombia (“police on every street corner”, rampant drug trade) are also “pretty scary”.

“I used to do a lot of circus stuff. In one of the shows I did, I was working with a lot of little people,” he reflects. “One of the little people I worked with, he was a performer. He had a motorbike, a tiny little motorbike and he used to drive around. He’d say, ‘I really get so angry with other little people, because they just hide away in their in their flats.’ He went out and faced life. And I think that’s what you have to do in life. You have to be brave and go out there and do what you have to do.”

The Tiger Lillies play New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth on 9 June and Redgrave Theatre, Bristol on 10 June. They play Lviv on 11 July and Kyiv on 13 July. The Worst of The Tiger Lillies is out now. tigerlillies.com

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

Support our vendors this winter and beyond

If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Here's one they played earlier: Pre-recorded orchestras spell trouble for live performance
Music

Here's one they played earlier: Pre-recorded orchestras spell trouble for live performance

This grassroots venue brings 'astonishing' music and mental wellbeing to rural Wales
Tivoli grassroots venue north Wales - Martin Kemp onstage pointing at the crowd
Venue Watch

This grassroots venue brings 'astonishing' music and mental wellbeing to rural Wales

Paloma Faith: 'How many left-wing people like me get to be a national treasure? None'
Paloma Faith
Music

Paloma Faith: 'How many left-wing people like me get to be a national treasure? None'

Photographer Dennis Morris on capturing legend Bob Marley – and how the reggae icon changed his life
Photography

Photographer Dennis Morris on capturing legend Bob Marley – and how the reggae icon changed his life

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know