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Ukraine at the Eurovision Song Contest

Ukraine’s recent Eurovision victory has shown the world its vibrant music industry. This is especially true given the ongoing Russian invasion, with the contest providing a platform for the country to promote its own unique identity.

May 19, 2022 - Arkadiusz Zając - Stories and ideas

Torino, Italy May 10th 2022. Ukrainian entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, Kalush Orchestra competing first semi final. Photo: EUPA-IMAGES / Shutterstock

Kalush is a small town in Western Ukraine and the hometown of Oleh Psiuk, the founder of the eponymous music group, a rapper with a pink hat. Their piece won the Eurovision Song Contest and is dedicated to Oleh’s mother, Stefania. She heard the song for the first time while the group performed at the Ukrainian preselection. 

At the previous Eurovision Song Contest, the band Go_A represented Ukraine with the piece “SHUM”. In the lyrics, the repeated words “siyu, siyu, siyu, siyu” (sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing) are meant to greet spring and spell a new beginning. In “Stefania”, Tymofii Muzychuk starts the chorus with the words of the common Slavonic lullaby “lyuli lyuli lyuli hoy”, to take our thoughts to the warmth of home, the feeling of safety. 

Son asks his mother Stefania to sing him a lullaby. The rap part of the song is about emotions that are not easy to express – the reasons for his love. His mother gave him willpower, protection, trust and even a sense of rhythm. Even though she gets older, much like her adult son, she is still worried about him. Son explains that he has grown up but adds that his love for her has no end.  

The Ukrainian entry is a combination of folk and rap, with lyrics about a son’s gratitude to his mother. It was officially selected for the Eurovision Song Contest on February 22nd. Two days later, the Russian invasion gave an additional context to the song. Lyrics like “I’ll always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed” took on a new meaning. They spoke to the determination of people who had to protect their loved ones in times of war.    

On Mother’s Day, Oleh Psiuk posted a photo with his mother, Stefania. Source: KALUSH’s Telegram channel

The band Kalush consists of Oleh Psiuk, Ihor Didenchuk and Vlad Kurochka (alias MC KylymMen, a dancer with a “carpet costume”) and is best known for its rap music. The Go_A band prepared twice for Eurovision, as in 2020 the contest was cancelled due to the pandemic. Their fans surely remember Ihor Didenchuk, who played the sopilka flute. This year, a young multi-instrumentalist from Lutsk performed at the Eurovision Song Contest for the third time. 

In 2021 Kalush launched a project that aims to combine Ukrainian folklore with contemporary music. It is called Kalush Orchestra and was joined by Tymofii Muzychuk, Vitalii Duzhyk and Andrii Handziuk (alias Johnny Strange). This team represented Ukraine at the Eurovision, except Johnny Strange, who was replaced by Oleksandr Slobodianyk (alias Sasha Tab). 

A mix of old and new 

The Kalush Orchestra and Go_A band are not the only examples of folklore being used in contemporary Ukrainian music. The year 2004 marked Ukraine’s second performance at Eurovision and its first victory. Ruslana, the winner, used a trembita, an instrument of the Carpathian highlanders, in her song “Wild Dances”. In 2017, when Kyiv hosted the Eurovision Song Contest for the second time, the electro-folk band ONUKA performed at the ceremony. Along with the NAONI Orchestra, they took on stage instruments such as the bandura, sopilka, pan flute and buhay.  

Initially, Ukraine was to be represented by Alina Pash. Like Oleh Psiuk, she is from the Western part of Ukraine, from a village in Transcarpathia. The title of her song, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”, refers to the novel written in 1911 by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky. This book is sometimes called the Hutsul version of Romeo and Juliet. In 1965, the Armenian film director Sergei Parajanov released a film based on the novel. In her song, Alina Pash reflects on the suffering of many generations of her nation. At the same time, she believes in a better future: “my homeland like a young girl / will upspring like golden wheat”. In the English part of the song, she refers to a shared European heritage and emphasises the need to: “remember your ancestors but write your own history”. Pash was selected to represent Ukraine at the Eurovision Song Contest. However, she withdrew on February 16th. The Kalush Orchestra, which placed second in the preselection, took her place. 

The boundaries of politics 

The music of Alina Pash is noteworthy, for instance, in her album розMова. However, her withdrawal was connected to a political scandal. It came out that she visited Crimea after the Russian annexation and came there via Russia. It is illegal in Ukraine as it legitimises the Russian occupation of the peninsula. Pash explained she came there through Ukraine and provided a certificate proving that, but the public broadcaster announced it was falsified. Thus, she resigned. A similar problem came up in 2019, and then Ukraine decided not to participate in the contest. 

Why Ukrainian artists cannot ignore politics? Oh, comrades, Ukrainians can finally tell Europe about themselves, and they have a lot to say. Thus, they need to take it seriously. In 2016, when Jamala won Eurovision with the song “1944”, its lyrics were about the Stalinist repressions. “SHUM”, the entry from the previous year, was inspired by a folk song from the same region where the Chornobyl disaster took place. What can it say to us? Maybe not only that there is an ongoing war, but also that for centuries Ukrainian stories were ignored or not necessarily told by Ukrainians. The independence of 1991 gave Ukraine more subjectivity and occasions to voice its perspective. 

Coming back to Jamala, the message of her song was interpreted as a protest against the Russian annexation of Crimea. As this kind of political expression could breach the rules of Eurovision, the European Broadcasting Union investigated the case. Eventually, the EBU announced that there was no direct reference to the current war. Jamala found inspiration for the song in the story of her great-grandmother, who as a young giril was deported to Central Asia. It was the exile of Crimean Tatars. 

Similar claims appeared this year. However, it is hard to say that the Kalush Orchestra was selected because of their political message. The Ukrainian broadcaster granted them a right to represent Ukraine two days before the Russian invasion on February 24th. Watching a recording from the Ukrainian preselection and the music video they published after they won the contest, you will see the difference between how the song was understood then and now. The country’s brutal reality encouraged people to reinterpret these lyrics. 

“The anthem of our victory” 

When Russian troops withdrew from the towns around Kyiv and the world saw the photos of bodies lying on the streets, mass graves, and destroyed houses, the Kalush Orchestra went there to give a concert to the people who survived the occupation. They recorded a music video in Irpin’, Hostomel, Bucha and Borodianka that put the song “Stefania” in the war context. Oleh Psiuk, in the video description, left his comment on how the interpretation of his song had changed: 

 “I once dedicated this song to my mother, and when the war broke out, the song took on a lot of new meanings. Although there is not a word about the war in the song, many people began to associate the song with mother Ukraine. Moreover, society began to call it the anthem of our war! But if Stefania is now the anthem of our war, I would like it to become the anthem of our victory” 

When one of Ukraine’s anti-ship “Neptune” missiles sank the Russian cruiser Moskva in April, Verka Serduchka published a postcard with her “mum” on Instagram. Source: @v_serduchka

In 17 entries, Ukraine has never missed a Grand Final. The Kalush Orchestra is the third Ukrainian winner, and drag queen Verka Serduchka, who was second in 2007, has become the Eurovision icon. How has Ukraine managed to achieve this? I am convinced that you will find your answer when you start to listen to Ukrainian music. I can assure you that it is not limited to the performances at the Eurovision Song Contest. If you use Spotify, you may find interesting the playlist recently prepared by the College of Eastern Europe. Also, ask your friends from Ukraine about any recommendations and share yours in the comments. “Okay, happy end”, as goes Serduchka’s farewell. 

Arkadiusz Zając is a student at the Jagiellonian University and an intern at New Eastern Europe.

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