With the live Eurovision shows just a matter of days away it seems likely that Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra will contend for victory with their song Stefania. A Eurovision win is something that is ordinarily celebrated across the continent, but would Ukraine be deserving of the win given the war-torn period the country finds itself in and the sympathetic pull of votes this will undoubtedly have?
Who are Kalush Orchestra?
Kalush Orchestra are a true-to-style hip-hop band from the city of Kalush in Ukraine. They infuse the modern vibe of the hip-hop genre with the sounds of traditional Ukrainian instruments including the sopilka. It’s a recipe that serves infectious melodies.
Kalush Orchestra undeniably carry a similar sound to that of Go_A who represented Ukraine at Eurovision last year. Indeed, Kalush Orchestra member Ihor Didenchuk is also a part of Go_A so the musical crossover can be traced to him at least.
Eurovision representation didn’t come easy for Kalush Orchestra. Competing in Ukraine’s national selection Vidbir on February 12, the band finished in second place behind Alina Pash despite bagging double the amount of televotes as their main rival. On the night of the final there was a malfunction of the scoreboard which led Kalush Orchestra’s lead singer Oleh Psiuk to publicly dispute the validity of the results that saw his band lose out when the jury votes were counted.
Days after the final of Vidbir it emerged that Pash had allegedly contravened the rules of the show by crossing into the Russian annexed Crimea from the Russian side of the border in 2015 and forging documents to try to hide the fact. Counterclaims were made by Pash’s management but a decision was ultimately taken on February 16 that she would forfeit her right to represent her country at Eurovision.
On February 17 Kalush Orchestra were offered the ticket to Turin in Pash’s absence and on February 22 – after the publishing of the official results of Vidbir – the band accepted the invitation.
The band’s song Stefania is a beautiful, powerful and stirring tribute to Psiuk’s mother. A mix of traditional Ukrainian rhythmic singing and full throttle, contemporary hip-hop and rap allows the track to cater to fans of different genres of music. Considering the music and performance of the song alone, Stefania will almost certainly follow in the footsteps of Go_A who charmed the televoters with similar instrumentation in their track Shum at Eurovision last year.
Difficulties for the Eurovision brand
Ukraine is enduring a time of great suffering and sacrifice owing to Vladimir Putin’s needless, selfish and bloody war. The importance of Eurovision to Ukraine can be seen in the granting of special permission by the government of the country to Kalush Orchestra and their delegation to travel to Turin when men of fighting age are required by law to stay in the country. This is something that Eurovision can celebrate; its brand and contest are trusted enough by a government whose nation is at war to let its citizens perform to the world.
But what could cause some difficulties?
A Ukrainian Eurovision victory would be an astonishingly poignant moment for the whole of Europe if it happens. It would also be a matter of international celebration and a moment of Ukrainian pride in the country’s musical identity and national sovereignty. But it doesn’t mean Ukraine deserve to win Eurovision owing only to the struggles of war.
There is a tired old narrative in UK mainstream media that Eurovision is – among other negative and incorrect assumptions – all about politics. If Kalush Orchestra win the contest it will do nothing to dissuade the UK media from churning out the political narrative every time Eurovision finds itself in the news. Instead it will be ammunition for critical publications and their critical, set-in-their-way readers to carry on their judgement of the contest.
Eurovision is going through a phase of rejuvenation since 2021 which saw it become the first international competition to be staged after the worst of the pandemic has passed. The worldwide success of last year’s winners Måneskin has further added to the growth of the musical credibility of Eurovision as a competition. It would be a shame if a Ukraine victory at the contest this month gave way to criticism of the contest to return to pre-2021 levels with people citing politics as the fuel of Eurovision.
A vote is a vote
Everyone who watches Eurovision and casts a vote is equally entitled to that vote as the next person. From die hard fans to armchair viewers, from professional international juries to drunken viewers, a vote is a vote and every vote counts. Kalush Orchestra’s Eurovision performance will attract an undeniable pull of votes from viewers who sympathise with the plight of Ukraine’s people. The quantity of votes in this regard and the impact these votes will have is unquantifiable so it would be dangerous to say that a Ukrainian Eurovision victory would be based on sympathy votes alone. After all, Kalush Orchestra’s dominating performance in Vidbir’s televote shows the song has a strong enough impact on a viewing television audience anyway.
On the opposite end of the scale to sympathetic voting is deliberate critical voting. Diplomatic, political and cultural tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia are long-established and are exceptionally tricky ground. Naturally these tensions spill into the contest. Ever since the EBU started releasing detailed jury votes in 2014, every single Armenian and Azeri juror – bar one Armenian in 2016 – has ranked each other’s entry in last place. It’s such a deep-rooted culture that can’t – and won’t – be stopped. It may not be liked or appreciated but it’s something that Eurovision fans have seemingly grown to accept. Ukraine securing sympathy and solidarity votes in the 2022 edition of the contest is something that viewers will also have to accept.
Ultimately Eurovision acts earn their final placing based on votes and votes alone. Even though it can be argued that Ukraine winning could potentially damage the integrity of the contest, the impact of this should – and hopefully would – be minor. Should they win, Kalush Orchestra must be celebrated for securing Eurovision victory in the same way their compatriots Jamala and Ruslana were when they triumphed in 2016 and 2004 respectively.