Huge public vote lifts Ukraine to win Eurovision Song Contest, amid Russian invasion

Folk hiphop band Kalush Orchestra rode a wave of goodwill at the contest this year; Zelensky: ‘Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!’

Members of the band 'Kalush Orchestra' celebrate onstage with Ukraine's flags after winning on behalf of Ukraine the Eurovision Song contest 2022 on May 14, 2022 at the Pala Alpitour venue in Turin. (Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)
Members of the band 'Kalush Orchestra' celebrate onstage with Ukraine's flags after winning on behalf of Ukraine the Eurovision Song contest 2022 on May 14, 2022 at the Pala Alpitour venue in Turin. (Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Saturday night, riding a wave of public support across Europe for the embattled nation and buoyed by an infectious hip-hop melody.

Kalush Orchestra beat out 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania,” a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk with modern rhythms from an energetic, breakdancing band.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azоvstal right now,” implored frontman Oleh Psiuk in English from the stage after their performance was met by a cheering audience.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the hip-hop group.

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” Zelensky wrote on Facebook.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the triumph was met with smiles and visible relief.

“It’s a small ray of happiness. It’s very important now for us,” said Iryna Vorobey, a 35-year-old businesswoman, adding that the support from Europe was “incredible”.

Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum-pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognisable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.

The victory drew praise in unlikely corners, as the deputy chief of the NATO military alliance said it showed just how much public support ex-Soviet Ukraine has in fighting off Moscow.

“I would like to congratulate Ukraine for winning the Eurovision contest,” Mircea Geoana said as he arrived in Berlin for talks that will tackle the alliance’s expansion in the wake of the Kremlin’s war.

“And this is not something I’m making in a light way because we have seen yesterday the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery of” Ukraine, Geoana said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom”.

And European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine”.

Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain, with the sexy reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.

Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.

Tapping traditional Ukrainian folk music but mashing up an invigorating hiphop beat with a haunting, lullaby refrain, “Stefania” was written last year by the band’s frontman, 27-year-old rapper Psiuk, as a tribute to his mother.

But the song selected to represent Ukraine at Eurovision — just days before Russia’s invasion — has taken on outsized meaning for a country nearing its third month of war. It contains nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” and celebrates cultural identity and the motherland.

Standing out in the competition long cheered for its flamboyance and camp, the band received a standing ovation on Tuesday after passing the semifinals. It had been considered by bookmakers a favorite to become Eurovision’s outright winner at the finale on Saturday.

“My mum is in Ukraine and many of my relatives are in Ukraine but there is really no safe place in Ukraine at the moment,” Psiuk told AFP through an interpreter before the finale.

“It’s really like a lottery, where you cannot know where exactly you’ll get in danger. So we are very worried about everyone and our relatives that are in Ukraine.”

Such worries have fuelled the band’s drive during Eurovision, he said.

Congratulations to Ukraine and Kalush Orchestra – the winners of the #Eurovision Song Contest 2022! ????????????Listen to their winning song Stefania, and the other 39 amazing songs from this year’s Contest here:

Posted by Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday, May 14, 2022

“We feel here as if on a mission because at the moment, as we speak, Ukrainian culture is being destroyed,” Psiuk said.

“But it is our role to show it is alive and it has a lot to offer. It’s unique. It really represents every Ukrainian who is now suffering in the world today.”

Although considered nonpolitical, the world’s biggest song contest, watched by millions of people, inevitably reflects greater geopolitical tensions.

This year, the European Broadcasting Union banned Russia from the contest a day after it invaded Ukraine on February 24. Russia had competed in Eurovision since 1994.

Perhaps the most original and energizing act at this year’s competition, the six-member all-male Kalush Orchestra sprang from Psiuk’s original hiphop group Kalush, named for his hometown in western Ukraine.

Members of the band “Kalush Orchestra” perform on behalf of Ukraine during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 on May 14, 2022 at the Pala Alpitour venue in Turin. (Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

The band is made up of Psiuk, Ihor Didenchuk, Tymofii Muzychuk, Vitalii Duzhyk, Oleksandr Slobodianyk and MC KylymMen (“CarpetMan”).

Its new sound incorporates traditional folk instruments, including the telenka, which is played with one hand controlling the pipe’s open end, and another flute-like instrument, the sopilka.

Performing in richly embroidered traditional garb, the band is also instantly recognizable for Psiuk’s bubblegum pink bucket hat and the carpet-like bodysuit worn by the breakdancing MC CarpetMan.

But it is Kalush Orchestra’s sound that makes the band unique. It “mixes old ancient folk, even forgotten sounds, with super modern and understandable-for-everyone hiphop rap elements,” Psiuk told journalists last week.

To win Eurovision, Kalush Orchestra was chosen above 24 other finalists competing on Saturday. Votes are cast by a mix of music industry professionals and the public from each country — who are not allowed to vote for their own nation.

Members of the band ‘Kalush Orchestra’ perform on behalf of Ukraine during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 on May 14, 2022 at the Pala Alpitour venue in Turin. (Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

With Ukraine’s win, next year’s Eurovision should be held in the country, which Psiuk vowed would be a “new, integrated, well developed, flourishing Ukraine.”

Although one band member who joined the army three days after the invasion remains in Ukraine defending Kyiv, Ukraine’s government gave the group special dispensation to travel abroad to compete at Eurovision.

“That’s why we want to be as useful to our country as we can be,” Psiuk told journalists.  “Representing your country is responsible anytime but representing it in a time of war is… a maximum responsibility for us.”

Psiuk says the band will return to Ukraine directly after Eurovision.

As their press release written ahead of the contest explains: “They will be allowed to leave for the final on 14th May but must return as men of fighting age the day after.”

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