TURIN, Italy (AP) – Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of Sunday, a clear show of popular support for a war-ravaged nation that went beyond music.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky hailed Ukraine’s third victory since the start of the 2003 Eurovision, saying that “we will do our best” to host next year’s competition in the hot city of Mariupol. Underlining the “Ukrainian Mariupol”, he said: “Free, peaceful, rebuild!”
“Thanks for the win, thanks to the Kalush Orchestra and everyone who voted for us,” Zelensky 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.”
The front man of the Kalush Orchestra, Oleg Psyuk, took advantage of a huge global audience of more than 180 million last year to make an impassioned plea for free fighters trapped under a giant steel plant in Mariupol after his performance.
The Kalush Orchestra’s song, “Stefania”, was a passionate and speculative favorite among the 25 competing performers at the grand finale. The public vote from home via text message or the Eurovision app proved decisive, raising him above British Tik Tok star Sam Ryder, who voted after national juries in 40 countries.
“Stefania” was written by Psych as a tribute to his mother, but since the February 24 invasion of Russia it has become an anthem for the motherland, with the lyrics: “I will always find my way, even if all Roads are destroyed.”
The Kalush Orchestra is a cultural project in itself that includes folklore experts and mixes traditional folk tunes and contemporary hip hop in a purposeful defense of Ukrainian culture. This becomes an even more important point as Russia through its invasion has falsely attempted to claim that Ukraine does not have a unique culture of its own.
The plea by the Russians to free the remaining Ukrainian fighters trapped under the Azovstal plant served as a gloomy reminder that the hugely popular and at times flamboyant Eurovision Song Contest was being played against the backdrop of the war on the eastern side of Europe.
“Help Azovstal, right now,” Psiuk pleaded under a bright bucket hat that has become the band’s trademark among fans.
The Azov Battalion, which is among the plant’s last 1,000 defenders, sent its thanks from Warren of the tunnels under the plant, posting on Telegram: “Thank you to the Kalush Orchestra for your support! glory to Ukraine!”
The city has been the site of some of the worst destruction of the 2 1/2-month war, as Russia seeks to secure a land bridge between the separatist-controlled Donbass and Crimea, which it annulled in 2014.
The six-member, all-male band received special permission to leave the country to represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture in a music competition. One of the original members stops to fight, and the others plan to return as soon as the contest ends.
Psiuk told the Associated Press ahead of the competition that he would return to a volunteer organization he founded at the start of the war that uses social media to help find transportation and shelter for those 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 whether there was war or not, fans from Spain, Britain and elsewhere were entering the Palompico venue from all over Europe, pushing for their country to win.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian music fan Irina Lasi said that she felt global support for her country in the war and “not just for music.”
Russia was excluded this year after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, a move organizers said was to keep politics out of competition that promotes diversity and friendship between nations.
Back in Ukraine, in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, the Kalush Orchestra’s participation in the competition is seen as giving the nation another platform to gain international support.
“The whole country is growing, everyone in the world supports us. It’s great,” said 29-year-old teacher Julia Vashchenko.
“I believe that wherever Ukraine is now and there is an opportunity to talk about war, we need to talk,” said 23-year-old makeup artist Alexandra Konovalova in Kharkiv. “Any competition is important now, because because of them more people learn what is happening right now.”
Ukrainians in Italy were also using the Eurovision event this week as the backdrop of a flashmob to appeal for help for Mariupol. About 30 Ukrainians gathered at a bar in Milan to watch the broadcast, many of whom wore a shiny bucket hat resembling a Psiuk Sports band in support of the band.
“We are very pleased that she called for help to save people in Mariupol,” lawyer Zoya Stankovska said during the show. “And we’re pretty sure they’re going to win.”
The winner brings home a glass microphone trophy and a potential career boost – although the Kalush Orchestra’s first concern is peace.
The event was hosted by Italy after local rock band Maneskin won in Rotterdam last year. The victory shot the Rome-based band to international fame, opening for the Rolling Stones and appearing on Saturday Night Live and their generally genderless dress code including several magazines.
Twenty bands were selected from the two semi-finals this week, and were competing with the Big Five from Italy, Britain, France, Germany and Spain, who have permanent berths due to the competition’s financial backing.
Ukraine commentator Timur Miroshnichenko, who does live voiceover for Ukraine’s broadcast of Eurovision, was attending from a basement in an undisclosed location instead of his usual TV studio.
“On the fifth or fourth day of the war, they shot down our TV tower in Kyiv,” he said. To continue the broadcast, “we had to go underground somewhere in Ukraine.”
It was important to show Eurovision in Ukraine, online and on TV, he said.
“This year, I think it is more symbolic than ever,” said Miroshnichenko.
Ukraine was able to participate in the music competition “thanks to the resistance of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and our people,” he said.
Barry reported from Milan. Vasilisa Stepanenko contributed from Kharkiv, Ukraine.