Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra wins Eurovision amid war

TURIN, Italy (AP) — Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest early Sunday in a clear show of popular support for the war-torn nation that went beyond music.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy celebrated the victory, Ukraine’s third since its Eurovision debut in 2003, saying “we will do everything possible” to host next year’s contest in the hotly contested port city of Mariupol. He underlined “Ukrainian Mariupol”, adding: “free, peaceful, rebuilt!”

“Thank you for the victory, Kalush Orchestra and everyone who voted for us!” Zelenskyy said in a post on the Telegram messaging app. “I am sure that our victorious chord in the battle with the enemy is not far off.”

Kalush Orchestra leader Oleg Psiuk tapped into the huge global audience, which last year numbered more than 180 million, to make an impassioned appeal to the wrestlers still trapped under a sprawling steel plant in Mariupol after his performance. .

Kalush Orchestra’s song “Stefania” was the sentimental and bookmaker’s favorite among the 25 artists who competed in the grand final. Public voting from home, via text messages or the Eurovision app, proved decisive, elevating them over British Tik Tok star Sam Ryder, who led after national juries from 40 countries cast their votes.

“Stefania” was written by Psiuk as a tribute to her mother, but since the invasion of Russia on February 24 it has become a hymn to the motherland, with lyrics that promise: “I will always find my way home, even if all the roads are destroyed.”

Kalush Orchestra itself is a cultural project that includes folklore experts and blends traditional folk melodies and contemporary hip hop in a resolute defense of Ukrainian culture. That has become an even more salient point as Russia, through its invasion, has tried to falsely claim that Ukraine does not have its own unique culture.

The Russians’ call for the release of the remaining Ukrainian fighters trapped beneath the Azovstal plant served as a grim reminder that the wildly popular and at times outlandish Eurovision song contest was taking place against the backdrop of war. on the eastern flank of Europe.

“Help Azovstal, right now,” Psiuk implored from under a sparkly bucket hat that has become the band’s trademark among fans.

The Azov battalion, which is among the last 1,000 defenders of the plant, sent its thanks from the maze of tunnels below the plant, posting on Telegram: “Thanks to the Kalush Orchestra for their support! Glory to Ukraine!”

The city itself has been the scene of some of the worst destruction of the two-and-a-half-month war, as Russia seeks to secure a land bridge between separatist-controlled Donbas and Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

The all-male, six-member band received special permission to leave the country and represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture in the music contest. One of the original members stayed to fight and the others plan to return as soon as the competition is over.

Psiuk told the Associated Press before the contest that he will return to a volunteer organization he created early in the war that uses social media to help find transportation and shelter for people in need.

While support for Ukraine in the song contest was ultimately overwhelming, the contest remained open until the final popular votes were counted. War or no war, fans from Spain, Great Britain and elsewhere poured into the PalaOlímpico venue from all over Europe cheering their own country on to win.

Still, Ukrainian music fan Iryna Lasiy said she felt global support for her country in the war and “not just for music.”

Russia was excluded this year after its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, a move organizers said was aimed at keeping politics out of the contest that promotes diversity and friendship between nations.

Back in Ukraine, in the battered northeastern city of Kharkiv, Kalush Orchestra’s participation in the competition is seen as giving the nation another platform for international support.

“The whole country is rising up, the whole world is supporting us. This is extremely nice,” said Julia Vashenko, a 29-year-old teacher.

“I think wherever Ukraine is now and there is an opportunity to talk about the war, we have to talk,” said Alexandra Konovalova, a 23-year-old make-up artist from Kharkiv. “Any competition is important now, because more people learn about what’s going on now.”

Ukrainians in Italy also used the Eurovision event as the backdrop for a flashmob this week calling for help for Mariupol. About 30 Ukrainians gathered in a Milan bar to watch the broadcast, many of them donning a sparkly bucket hat like the one Psiuk wears, in support of the band.

“We are very happy that you have called to help save people in Mariupol,” said lawyer Zoia Stankovska during the program. “And we’re pretty sure they’re going to win.”

The winner takes home a crystal microphone trophy and a potential career boost, though Kalush Orchestra’s first concern is peace.

The event was organized by Italy after local rock band Maneskin won last year in Rotterdam. The win launched the Rome-based band to international fame, opening for the Rolling Stones and appearing on Saturday Night Live and numerous magazine covers in their typically genderless dress code.

Twenty bands were chosen in two semi-finals this week and were competing alongside the Big Five from Italy, Britain, France, Germany and Spain, who have permanent places due to their financial support of the contest.

Ukrainian commentator Timur Miroshnichenko, who does live voiceover for the Eurovision broadcast in Ukraine, was participating from a basement in an undisclosed location, rather than from his usual television studio.

“On the fifth or fourth day of the war, they shot at our TV tower in kyiv,” he said. To continue broadcasting, “we had to move underground somewhere in the Ukraine.”

Showing Eurovision in Ukraine was important, online and on television, he said.

“This year, I think it’s more symbolic than ever,” Miroshnichenko said.

Ukraine was able to participate in the music contest “thanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the resistance of our people,” he said.

Barry reported from Milan. Vasilisa Stepanenko contributed from Kharkiv, Ukraine.

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