Kalush Orchestra — Ukraine’s Eurovision 2022 act — doesn’t just tug on heartstrings. It rips them out and sets them on fire. Lead singer Oleh Psiuk raps about his mother Stefania — the song’s titular character — and celebrates her strong yet supple hands, which encouraged him through good times and bad. Written prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the song has taken on new meaning in light of the war. It now reads as Mother Ukraine protecting her children at the same time they strive to defend her.
The Ukrainian-language folk-rap track doesn’t feature any English. But viewers will still understand that “mamo” — repeated in the chorus — means mother. The staging makes her pain manifest. On the LED screen we see large eyes, tearful from the lost spring, and on the LED floor wrinkled hands — a mother cradling her children during their most difficult moment.
In recent months the members of Kalush Orchestra have been involved in Ukraine’s war effort — from helping displaced people relocate to actively participating in the country’s territorial defence. They received special permission to leave Ukraine for Eurovision and the promotional tour beforehand. That’s largely down to the prestige and importance of Eurovision in both Ukraine and Russia. Their appearance is a reminder that Ukrainian culture exists despite efforts to erase it.
“We believe that it is very important for every Ukrainian to be able to speak up for Ukraine right now,” the group told me in Amsterdam. “For us it is particularly important to to represent the authentic, beautiful Ukrainian music, so that it gets an opportunity to be represented in the world market.
Their participation could be cast as part of the country’s war effort: “The feeling is that by doing what we are doing we can be of most use for our country — by doing our job.”
For months the bookies have had Ukraine down as the front-runners to win. An hour before the show, they were the heavy favourites with odds of 4/11 — putting them well ahead of second favourite Sweden (19/2) and third favourite the UK (10/1).
There’s an assumption that the artists will receive overwhelming support from the televoting public. The world has seen the horrific images coming out Ukraine — including photos of tortured civilians with their arms bound and gun shot wounds to the head. Their struggle just to get here will provide one of the TV moments of the year. Voting nations including Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia will be particularly sympathetic to their neighbours, owing to a shared understanding of oppression from Moscow. You can understand why the bookies are getting swept up in the hype.
A win seems likely, but it isn’t guaranteed. The professional jury — which makes up 50% of the score — has a tendency to vote with their head rather than their heart. Will they put their name down next to Ukrainian folk-rap? Last year’s split result show that they’re less likely to (Ukraine’s EDM-folk group Go_A finished seventh with the juries and second with the televote).
We’ve also been here before. In 1993, when Bosnia & Herzegovina debuted at the contest, its contestant Fazla had to flee the Siege of Sarajevo under cover of darkness as snipers fired at him. “We came with mud on our feet and in our pants and jacket,” he told me of his difficult journey from war-torn Sarajevo to Eurovision. “They knew we didn’t come for the money or to make a career out of it. They knew why we came there — just to bring our story to as many living rooms as we could.”
Despite providing the emotional climax of the evening, Bosnia finished 15th ( in an era when the show was decided 100% by the jury).
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Around the Eurovision press room, and in our live chats on YouTube, a lot of folks have said, “Ukraine shouldn’t win out of sympathy” and that “the best song should win.” But how do you define the best song? If it’s something likely to be played on the most radio stations around Europe, then clearly “Stefania” isn’t it.
But music is feeling. If Ukraine’s stage performance of “Stefania” makes people feel something — whether that’s sadness or even discomfort — surely that’s enough to justify a vote?
We’d love to know what you’re thinking. Let us know in the comments down below!