TURIN, Italy (AP) — Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of Sunday in a clear show of grassroots support for the war-ravaged nation that went beyond music.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the win, Ukraine’s third since making its Eurovision debut in 2003, and said “we will do our best” to organize 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 message on the Telegram messaging app. “I am sure that our victorious agreement in the battle with the enemy is not far off.”
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Kalush Orchestra leader Oleg Psiuk took advantage of last year’s huge global audience of more than 180 million to make an impassioned appeal to the free fighters still trapped under a sprawling ironworks in Mariupol after their performance.
Kalush Orchestra’s song, “Stefania”, was the favorite of sentimentalists and bookmakers among the 25 performers competing in the grand finale. Public voting at home, by text message or via the Eurovision app, proved decisive, lifting them above British Tik Tok star Sam Ryder, who led after national juries from 40 countries vote.
“Stefania” was written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother, but since the invasion of Russia on February 24, it has become a hymn to the homeland, with lyrics that promise: “I will always find the way back, even if all the roads are destroyed.”
Kalush Orchestra itself is a cultural project that includes folklore experts and mixes traditional folk melodies and contemporary hip hop in a deliberate defense of Ukrainian culture. This has become an even more salient point as Russia, through its invasion, has sought to falsely assert that Ukraine does not have its own unique culture.
The call for the release of the remaining Ukrainian fighters trapped under the Azovstal factory by the Russians served as a grim reminder that the hugely popular and sometimes flamboyant Eurovision song contest was being played against the backdrop of a war on the eastern flank from Europe.
“Help Azovstal, now,” Psiuk implored under a shiny bob that has become the band’s trademark among fans.
The Azov Battalion, which is among the last 1,000 defenders of the factory, sent their thanks from the maze of tunnels under the factory, posting on Telegram: “Thank you Kalush Orchestra for your support! Glory to Ukraine!”
The city itself has been the scene of some of the worst destruction in the 2.5-month war, as Russia seeks to secure a land bridge between separatist-controlled Donbass and Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
The all-male group, consisting of six members, received special permission to leave the country to represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture in the music competition. One of the original members stayed to fight, and the others plan to return as soon as the contest is over.
Psiuk told The Associated Press ahead of the contest that he would return to a volunteer organization he started at the start of 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 counted. And war or not, fans from Spain, Britain and beyond entering the PalaOlimpico hall from across Europe were rooting for their own country to win.
Still, Ukrainian music fan Iryna Lasiy said she felt global support for her country during the war and “not just for the music”.
Russia was excluded this year after its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
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 to garner international support.
“The whole country is rising up, everyone in the world is supporting us. It’s extremely pleasant,” said Julia Vashenko, a 29-year-old teacher.
“I believe that wherever there is Ukraine 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 in Kharkiv. “All competitions are important now, thanks to them more people learn what is happening now.”
Ukrainians in Italy were also using the Eurovision event as the backdrop for a flash mob this week to ask for help for Mariupol. Around 30 Ukrainians gathered at a bar in Milan to watch the broadcast, many of whom wore shiny bucket hats like the one Psiuk is sporting, in support of the group.
“We are so happy that he called to help save the people of Mariupol,” lawyer Zoia Stankovska said on the broadcast. “And we’re pretty sure they’re going to win.”
The winner takes home a glass microphone trophy and a potential career boost – although Kalush Orchestra’s primary concern is peace.
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The event was hosted by Italy after local rock band Maneskin won last year in Rotterdam. The victory propelled 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 sexless costume code.
Twenty groups were chosen in two semi-finals this week and competed against the Big Five of Italy, Britain, France, Germany and Spain, who have permanent places due to their support funding for the competition.
Ukrainian commentator Timur Miroshnichenko, who does the live voiceover for Ukraine’s Eurovision broadcast, was participating from a basement at an undisclosed location, rather than from his usual television studio.
“On the fifth or fourth day of the war, they shot at our television tower in kyiv,” he said. To continue broadcasting, “we had to move underground somewhere in Ukraine.”
Broadcasting of Eurovision in Ukraine was extensive, online and on TV, he said.
“This year, I think, is more symbolic than ever,” Miroshnichenko said.
Ukraine was able to participate in the music competition “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.