Ukrainian band plays song favored to win Eurovision as war rages

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At the end of their performance in Europe’s most popular song contest, members of the Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra, hands to their hearts, made a passionate plea.

“I ask for all of you,” frontman Oleh Psiuk said, “please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal right now.”

Kalush Orchestra, which made it to Saturday’s grand final of this year’s Eurovision with a flamboyant performance watched by nearly 200 million people, is favored by bookmakers to win for its performance of the folk-rap mash-up “Stefania.”

The Ukrainian contender is one of 25 acts that will compete in the last round of Eurovision, the world’s longest-running televised music competition, which draws votes from viewers and once helped launch Abba. The band was one of the most-watched on YouTube among this year’s 40 national entries.

For Psiuk, the song has become a tribute to Ukraine, and the stage a platform to remind people of Russia’s war against his country. He first sang it as an ode to his mother, but onstage at the Eurovision semifinals this week, the lyrics resonated differently. “I’ll always come to you, by broken roads,” he rapped in his pink bucket hat.

During the performance in Turin, Italy, on Saturday, a screen over the stage showed a woman’s teary eyes. A waterfall in front of the stage glowed with yellow and blue lights overhead, the colors of Ukraine’s flag.

“If we win, it will be another opportunity to show Ukraine to the world, to remind people about Ukraine, and to increase morale in the whole country,” the 27-year-old said this week.

Ukrainian authorities allowed the singer and his group to travel to compete in Italy, despite banning most men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country in anticipation that they may be called to fight.

Ukrainian fans tuning in to Saturday’s final heard commentary from presenter Timur Miroshnychenko broadcasting from an underground bunker. The public broadcaster Suspilne posted photos of him sitting at a desk with computers and a camera in a makeshift studio.

“We don’t have many happy moments right now in our country,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live this week. “Nothing is going to interrupt the broadcast of Eurovision.”

If Kalush Orchestra — which mixes hip-hop with Ukrainian folk dance — wins the Eurovision final, Ukraine it would have the right to host the 2023 contest. The annual competition was first held in 1956, and while its organizers in the European Broadcasting Union have billed it as a “nonpolitical” event, it has often reflected the political dynamics of its time.

In fact, the band replaced Ukraine’s original act, Alina Pash, this year because of an investigation into a visit she reportedly made in 2015 to Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014. And after the Kremlin launched its war on Ukraine in February, Russia was banned from this year’s contest.

In 2016, the Ukrainian entry by Crimean Tatar singer Jamala scored Ukraine its second Eurovision win. When the contest was held the next year in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, Russia was barred from joining.

Armenia and Georgia were among the contenders to pull out in past years over tensions with other countries, and the bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst’s victory in 2014 sparked debate about LGBTQ rights.

Annabelle Chapman contributed to this report.

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