Turin, Italy (AP) – Ukraine’s Kaluch Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of Sunday in an apparent display of popular support for the war-torn nation that transcends music.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the win, Ukraine’s third since its Eurovision debut in 2003, and said “we will do everything we can” to host next year’s competition in the hotly contested port city of Mariupol. He emphasized the phrase “Ukrainian Mariupol,” adding: “Free, peaceful, reconstructed!”
“Thank you for the victory, Kalush Orchestra and everyone who voted for us!” Zelensky said in a post on the Telegram messaging app. “I am sure that the victorious chord in the battle with the enemy is not far away.
Oleg Psyuk, conductor of the Kalush Orchestra, took advantage of the massive global audience, which last year numbered more than 180 million, to make an impassioned plea to free the fighters still trapped under a sprawling steel plant in Mariupol after their performance.
Kallush’s orchestra song, “Stefania,” was a sentimental and bookie favorite among the 25 artists competing in the Grand Final. Audience voting from home, via text message or the Eurovision app, proved crucial, lifting it above British Tik Tok star Sam Ryder, who led after national juries in 40 countries cast their votes.
Psiuk wrote “Stefania” in honor of his mother, but since the Russian invasion on February 24, it has become an anthem for the motherland, with lyrics vowing: “I will always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed.”
The Kalush Orchestra itself is a cultural project involving folklore experts and blends traditional folk tunes and contemporary hip-hop in a purposeful defense of Ukrainian culture. This is becoming an even more salient point, as Russia has sought through its conquest to assert that Ukraine does not have its own unique culture.
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.
“Help Azovstal, for now,” Psiuk pleaded from under a bright bucket hat that became the band’s trademark among fans.
The Azov Battalion, which is among the last 1,000 defenders of the plant, sent a thank-you from Warren Tunnels under the plant, and posted on Telegram: “Thank you to the Kalush Orchestra for your support! Glory to Ukraine!”
The city itself has been the sites of some of the worst destruction of the two-and-a-half-month war, as Russia seeks to secure a land bridge between Donbass and separatist-held Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
The six-member, all-male band was given 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.
Pesiuk told The Associated Press before the contest that he would be returning to a volunteer organization he set up 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 wide open until the final popular votes were tallied. War or not, fans from Spain, Britain and elsewhere who rolled into the PalaOlimpico stadium from all over Europe wooed their countries for the 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.
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.”
Ukrainians in Italy also used the Eurovision event as a backdrop to this week’s flash parade to seek help from Mariupol. About 30 Ukrainians gathered at a bar in Milan to watch the broadcast, many wearing bright bucket hats like those sported by Psiuk, to support the band.
“We are very pleased that he has called to help save the people of Mariupol,” lawyer Zoya Stankovska said during the presentation. “We are sure they will win.”
The winner gets a glass microphone trophy and a potential career boost – although peace is the Kaloosh Orchestra’s number one concern.
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 on the covers of several magazines in her usual gender-neutral outfit.
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.
Ukrainian commentator Timur Miroshnichenko, who does live voiceover for the Ukrainian broadcast of Eurovision, was participating from a basement in an undisclosed location, instead of his usual TV studio.
“On the fifth or fourth day of the war, they shot our television tower in Kyiv,” he said. To continue broadcasting, “We had to move underground somewhere in Ukraine.”
He said that the Eurovision show in Ukraine was significant, both online and on TV.
“This year, I think it’s more symbolic than ever,” Miroshnichenko said.
He said that Ukraine was able to participate in the music competition “thanks to the armed forces of Ukraine and the resistance of our people.”
Barry reported from Milan. Vasilisa Stepanenko Contribution from Kharkiv, Ukraine.
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