Turin, Italy (AP) – Ukraine’s Kaluch Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of Sunday in an apparent show of support for the war-torn country.
The six-man band blending traditional folk tunes and contemporary hip-hop in a purposeful defense of Ukrainian culture were the emotional favourite, bookmakers among the 25 bands and artists competing in the Grand Final. The public’s vote from within was crucial to securing their victory.
Oleg Psyuk, the division’s head, took advantage of the massive global audience to make an impassioned plea to liberate the fighters still trapped under a sprawling steel mill in the southern port city of Mariupol after the six-man squad performed.
“I am asking all of you, please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal, right now,” said Ole Seok, head of the band, to the live crowd of 7,500 people, many of them very warmly, and the global TV audience of millions.
The plea to free the remaining Ukrainian fighters trapped under the Azovstal plant by the Russians was a sad reminder that the famous and sometimes exhilarating Eurovision Song Contest was being held against the backdrop of the war on Europe’s eastern flank.
President Volodymyr Zelensky gave signals that he was watching from Kyiv, supporting the Ukrainian band.
“Indeed, this is not a war, but nevertheless, for us today, any victory is very important,” Zelensky said in a presidential statement. “So, let’s cheer for us. Glory to Ukraine!”
The Kalush Orchestra was among 25 bands that performed at the recent Eurovision Song Contest in front of a live audience in the northern industrial city of Turin, while millions of others watched it on television or on broadcast around the world.
Fans from Spain, Britain and elsewhere were entering the PalaOlimpico stadium from all over Europe roaring for their country to win. However, Ukrainian music fan Irina Lacey said that she felt global support for her country in the war and “not only for music.”
Russia was excluded this year after its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, a move that organizers said was aimed at keeping politics out of competition that promotes diversity and friendship between nations.
Ukraine’s song, “Stefania”, was written in honor of the mother of the confrontational president, but since the war it has turned into the anthem of the besieged nation, as the words acquire a new meaning. “I will always find my way home, even if all the roads are destroyed,” wrote Ole Seok, conductor of the Kalosh Orchestra.
The six-member band of men got special permission to leave the country to represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture in a music competition. One of the original members remained to fight, and the others planned to return once the competition was over.
Back in Ukraine, in the devastated northeastern city of Kharkiv, the Kalush Orchestra’s participation in the competition is seen as giving the nation another platform to win international support.
The whole country is rising, everyone in the world supports us. This is very nice, said Julia Vashenko, a 29-year-old teacher.
“I think that wherever Ukraine is now and there is an opportunity to talk about war, we need to talk,” said Alexandra Konovalova, a 23-year-old makeup artist in Kharkiv. “Any competitions are important now, because of which more people learn about what is happening now.”
Anastasia Khardikova, a 24-year-old Ukrainian living in Sweden, said she intends to vote for the Kalush Orchestra, and is persuading her friends abroad to do the same.
The winner is chosen in equal parts by committees of music experts in each competing country and voted by the audience – leaving room for unease. Britain’s Sam Ryder and Sweden’s Cornelia Jacobs each have a 10% chance of winning the Italian duo Mahmoud and Blanco with a 6% chance.
The winner will receive a glass microphone trophy and a potential career boost.
Italy hosted the event after the victory of local rock band Maneskin last year in Rotterdam. The victory catapulted the Rome-based band to international fame, opening in front of the Rolling Stones and appearing on Saturday Night Live and several magazine covers in their regular gender-neutral attire.
Twenty teams were selected for the semi-finals this week, and were competing against the Big Five of Italy, Britain, France, Germany and Spain, who have permanent berths due to their financial support for the competition.
Barry reported from Milan. Vasilisa Stepanenko Contribution from Kharkiv, Ukraine.