Wedding singer. Accordionist. Refugee. Dad. Born Feb. 19, 1967, in Tomasica, Yugoslavia; died Nov. 4, 2016, in Edmonton, of pancreatic cancer; aged 49.
There was a time in Edmonton in the 1990s and early 2000s when Slavko Lepki was the life of the hall party.
In one of those quirky subcultures that can form in a major city, Edmonton has a vibrant Ukrainian hall-party scene. While they may have died out in most of the country, today in Edmonton you can still find, on a Saturday night, a five-piece band on a stage, singing their hearts out, pounding out a lively beat, while Gen-Xers and millennials polka and waltz.
Slavko began playing his accordion and singing at weddings as a young boy in Bosnia and Croatia. He left the former Yugoslavia as a refugee in 1992, when he was 25. After settling in Edmonton, it didn't take him long to form a new band and become one of the biggest names in Ukrainian-Canadian music.
As a lead singer, Slavko was funny, charismatic and full of life. He knew his audience well and his timing was impeccable. He knew when to slow things down. He knew when to whip out a lively polka. And he knew when to break out the AC/DC on his accordion. Thousands of people have seen him play in Edmonton, Vegreville, Calgary and Toronto.
Even at work – most recently with Telus for more than 10 years – Slavko was a musician at heart. He would sing classic 1950s or 60s tunes each day. His co-workers would say they'd have a golden oldie with a Bosnian accent stuck in their heads. "And I vonder. I va, va, va, va, vonder. Vay. A vay-vay-vay-vay-vay, she ran avaaay!"
With his music, Slavko was the glue that held together a community of Edmontonians who had been displaced by the war in the former Yugoslavia. The life of a newcomer is tough, and Slavko kept everyone dancing.
Slavko was twice-married . He first tied the knot in 1992, while living in a refugee camp in Austria. His second marriage, in 2004, was to Sylvia.
Slavko met Sylvia in the late 1990s when they both had summer jobs at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village – an outdoor museum. They were both dressed in costumes from the early 1900s. Slavko sometimes brought her a bucket of water from the nearest well. This is not easy to do. The bucket was heavy, the well was far and the water would slosh over the sides into his boots. What an unusual way for a 21st-century, urban romance to bloom – by fetching water from the well!
Sylvia and Slavko built a happy life together raising their three young children – a daughter with her Daddy's love of music, and twin boys, his little bears.
Sylvia and Slavko enjoyed music, wine, travel and friends. They were always on the lookout for a good concert and Slavko's accordion was almost always in the back seat of his car. If the mood was right, he'd bring it out at a house party, and then singing and dancing would start.
The cancer diagnosis in May was a shock. We all thought we would have a few more years and a few more beers. He was the last man standing at many a party, and now he's the first one down.
Susan Vukadinovic, Slavica Lepki and Sabina Herdman are Slavko's sisters-in-law.