Ukraine is the winner of the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest, one of the most visually stimulating spectacles on European television.
Much of the world’s attention had already been focused on Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion in late February.
But the country took the spotlight on a different kind of world stage on Saturday, when folk-rap group Kalush Orchestra competed and prevailed in Eurovision’s grand final.
“This victory is for every Ukrainian!” lead singer Oleh Psiuk shouted.
Support for Ukraine could be seen and heard from the first moments of the finals on Saturday. Contestants and audience members alike sang, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance,” during the opening ceremony. When the cameras cut to shots of the audience in Turin, Italy, people could be seen dressed in yellow and blue, some waving the Ukrainian flag, in support.
After the Kalush Orchestra peformed, Psiuk called out to audience members across the world, “I ask all of you, please help Ukraine, Mariupol, help Azovstal, Right now!”
Ukraine ended the evening with a whopping 631 points, followed by the U.K. with 466, Spain with 459 and then Sweden with 438.
Frontman Oleh Psiuk told NPR in a Zoom interview before the final that it’s a huge responsibility to represent Ukraine and its culture to the world, especially as Russia is actively trying to destroy it.
“We need support to show everybody that our culture is really interesting and has a nice signature of its own,” he said. “It exists, and we have to fight now at all of the front lines.”
The band is relatively new, but its style and song quickly became iconic
Kalush Orchestra became a recognizable fixture of this year’s competition, thanks in large part to its members’ distinctive outfits, dance moves and wind instrument skills.
Its song, “Stefania,” combines rapped verses and a folk chorus. Psiuk wrote it about his mother before the war, but it has since taken on a new, more patriotic meaning.
“Many people began to perceive it like Ukraine is my mother,” he explains. “And this way the song has been very close to Ukrainian people.”
Psiuk explains that the group’s unique style is present not only in its music, but “in our images, in the concept, in anything we do.”
The six-person band mixes modern streetwear with traditional clothing, from embroidered vests to Psiuk’s signature pink bucket hat, and incorporates Ukrainian woodwind instruments like the sopilka and telenka.
While the current iteration of the band has only been around since last year, it has its roots in a three-person rap group called Kalush, which Psiuk helped found in 2019. It’s named after his hometown in the western region of Ivano-Frankivsk.
Psiuk’s family is still there. In his few spare moments between rehearsals and interviews, they tell him about the missiles flying overhead.
“It’s like a lottery,” he said. “You never know where it strikes, so … we are very anxious.”
The musicians fight for their country on and off the stage
The band’s members are all men of fighting age, and had to get temporary permits in order to leave Ukraine for the competition in Turin, Italy.
One of them, Vlad Kurochka, or MC KylymMen (which translates to CarpetMan) chose to stay in Ukraine, where he’s been helping to defend Kyiv.
The other musicians were planning to return home immediately after Eurovision ended, Psiuk said.
He plans to return to the volunteer organization he started called “De Ty” (which translates to “Where are you”). Its roughly 35 volunteers coordinate things like transportation, medicine and accommodations for people across Ukraine, who submit requests via a Telegram channel.
And Psiuk said while the band isn’t able to focus on creating new music at the moment, it does have some already in the works.
What a Eurovision win means for Ukraine
Psiuk had hoped that the band would return to Ukraine as Eurovision champions, adding that any sort of win would help boost the country’s morale.
“I would like to bring some good news to Ukraine, because good news [hasn’t] been in our country for a long time,” he said.
He hoped fans’ support for Ukraine won’t end now that the songwriting contest has.
Psiuk said it’s important for people to attend peaceful rallies, post on social media and keep raising awareness in other ways.
“The more people speak about Ukraine, the quicker the war will be over and it will not start in other countries,” he said, adding that he is grateful for the support his country has received so far.
It’s customary for the country that wins Eurovision to host the following year’s competition. Does Psiuk think that can happen in 2023?
“Yes,” he said emphatically. “I’m sure that Ukraine will host Eurovision, and will gladly do that in the rebuilt, whole and happy Ukraine.”
Dustin Jones contributed reporting.