At Eurovision, Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra Aims for the Prize

No matter what happens on Saturday night at the Grand Final of the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, Italy, Kalush Orchestra’s Oleh Psiuk won’t be celebrating much. Instead, he—and the four band members that make up Ukraine’s entry into the annual televised musical competition—will be preparing to head back to their country, where mandatory martial conscription laws suggest they will be required to serve in the ongoing war with Russia.

Kalush Orchestra is right now the bookies’ safest bet to win the 66th edition of the contest as they compete against 25 countries with their song “Stefania,” a Ukrainian-folk-meets-hip-hop concoction that Psiuk wrote about his mother before the conflict broke out. Listeners have adopted it as an allegory of Mother Ukraine. “After the war, a lot of people seem to be finding new meanings there,” Psiuk says over Zoom, via a translator, on the penultimate evening of the competition. His signature style statement is the pink bucket cap. It’s a visual at odds with his demeanor: somber and measured. “I hope that Europe also enjoys this song; my mom is enjoying it very much. And I know that it’s now her ringtone on her phone,” he says, lightening up for a moment. “The enemy is trying to destroy our culture. We are here to show that we exist and that we have the right to be known. It is our right to be heard. We’re asking for help to protect our culture.”

Ukraine has won the competition twice before, most recently in 2016 with a song about the experience of the Crimean Tartars deported by former Soviet leader Stalin; it was considered by many to be a commentary on Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prevented them from taking part this year. To longtime Eurovision blogger, commentator, and author of upcoming Eurovision memoir William Lee Adams, who has been on the ground in Italy for the competition, the conflict is a dark cloud over the year’s events. Eurovision often celebrates culture and camp. It is a joyous and outrageous representation of some the brightest pop stars from the 40 participating countries. Adams claims this year has been different. “The energy in the press area feels somehow deflated,” he says. “There’s a sense that in the background, something is rumbling, that this festival of joy has a cloud hanging over it. In the literal sense, you can see that the central stage’s centerpiece, the kinetic solar system, was supposed move. This was actually a collection of arches, which were meant to be moving in celebration of the sun. But it doesn’t work. It’s now a black rainbow of death.” To Adams, it’s a symbolic representation of the negativity engendered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It was a pandemic that slowed down the events’ energy last year. But this year, Adams says, feels even “less free.”

There is also the Kalush Orchestra, and their chances. “A huge conversation that’s taking place among journalists and fans is whether Ukraine should win because of sympathy,” Adams says. Adams says it is difficult to distinguish our emotions from the Ukrainian narrative and the music. “Music is feeling, right? Music can tell stories. What story could be more timely than that of the conflict in Ukraine? Eurovision was founded to help prevent war, to bring country warring countries together to promote peace,” he says. “People talk about fairness. People ask if this is unfair for other countries. Well, I say no, Ukraine didn’t ask for this war.”

Despite the fact that he’s seen their performance “about 17 times,” he says it makes an emotional impact each time, thanks in part to staging that centers the maternal narrative and references Ukrainian history and folk aesthetics. “Honestly, every time I see it, I well up,” Adams says. “They gave a statement before Eurovision, and they said our stage show will not be political. You can clearly see a story if you look at it. People always say Eurovision is a political, but I say that’s impossible, because popular music reflects the zeitgeist.”

The historical references, at least, are intentional: “As a band, Kulash Orchestra is trying to mix together the old folklore that’s been forgotten by now with the new, contemporary hip-hop, and bringing it together into this vibe that is like nothing else that you know,” Psiuk explains. “The whole world is watching us perform. And it is important that we promote Ukraine successfully, that we do Ukraine proud.”

Win or lose, however, Kalush has already made a point—to ardent Eurovision fans, to their Ukrainian countrymen, and to casual viewers who may just be hearing about the group now. “No one is trying to destroy another country’s culture. However, ours is. [being destroyed], and that is why we need all the support we can get,” Psiuk says. The future—and the present—are already weighing on him. “It’s been pretty challenging, all of it,” he says. “It is very stressful knowing that missiles are just flying at Ukraine, and you never know where it hits. And even when you are not in Ukraine, but your family is, it’s extremely stressful. So it’s just not easy to focus at all.” Adams has noticed that weight, too. “The other contestants are celebrating, laughing, doing impromptu dances on the street. And these guys have this quiet dignity to them,” Adams says.

Psiuk, along with his bandmates, will immediately return to Ukraine after the competition ends. Although they were granted a temporary permit by Prime Minister Zelensky, their participation in the competition is closed. A sixth member of the band is currently fighting for their homeland. “If we have to, of course we will take arms and we will go fight for our land,” Psiuk says.

They are still playing Eurovision as best as they can. On a red carpet recently, Adams and Psiuk interacted—and Psiuk gave him a copy of a pink bucket hat, his signature. “They’re going through the biggest crisis of their country’s modern history, and he’s bringing gifts to journalists at Eurovision? I can’t even compute,” he says.

Tradition dictates that Ukraine should host the Eurovision Song Contest in 2023. Psiuk seems optimistic. “It will be a whole different Ukraine. It will be newly rebuilt, and happy, and prosperous,” he says.

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