When Kalush Orchestra walks out on stage tonight in Tel Aviv, to play their Eurovision Song Contest entry Stefania for the first time outside Ukraine, an enthusiastic reception is guaranteed.
Not only is their eclectic mix of folk and rap irresistible, but also, these six young men in bucket hats and traditional waistcoats – giving the founder, Oleh Psiua, a look of Liam Gallagher – have been given special permission to leave Ukraine.
While a specially introduced martial law prevents men of military age from departing the war-torn country, Kalush Orchestra has been encouraged to travel, says the national public broadcaster Suspline.
These are young men with a mission. “We want to show the world community Ukrainian music,” the band told Suspline. “Our spirit and how unbreakable we are. We really need support in this difficult time.”
Unsurprisingly, Ukraine is already the favourite to win on May 14 in the final in Turin, Italy, following on from its two previous wins in 2004 (Wild Dances) and 2016 (1944). Who could blame its European neighbours for offering up a united flurry of douze points – whether they like the song or not?
Such political reckoning is nothing new at Eurovision. Scrape its glossy surface and all sorts of tribal factors come bubbling up. No more so than this year; Russia – one of the most perennially successful countries to compete, with 10 top five places including one win – was banned from competing one day after its invasion of Ukraine.
The European Broadcasting Union warned allowing Russia to compete would “sully” an event designed to promote European unity and cultural exchange.
The contest was, of course, designed to bring the nations of Europe closer together after the horrors of World War Two. The first participants, in 1956, were Switzerland (the hosts) plus the six countries that would go on to create the original “common market”.
By the mid-Sixties, Britain was eager to join them. General de Gaulle was less keen and kept us out. Our 1965 Eurovision response was to produce a song called I Belong, sung by Kathy Kirby. It came second, but did nothing to change the General’s mind.
In the mid-Seventies, Portugal took the political lead in the contest. Its 1972 entry, Tourada, was a covert attack on the faltering Estado Novo regime, written by Communist Party member Ary dos Santos. Next year’s entry went one better; it was used as the signal to launch the “Carnation Revolution” that toppled that regime. Conspirators huddled round their radios waiting for E Depois Do Adeus to play, then took to the streets. The following year, their successful revolt was celebrated by Captain Duarte Mendes, who wanted to sing his contest entry Madrugada (‘Dawn’) in military uniform, but had to make do with a red carnation in his buttonhole (and a terrible orange shirt).
Fast forward to the late Eighties, arguably the high point of enthusiasm for the European project. When the Berlin Wall fell, the contest was won by Yugoslavia, surely a plea for Eastern Europe to join the continental family. The year after that, Italy’s Toto Cutugno produced the most political song the contest had seen: Insieme: 1992 (“Unite, Unite Europe”) was a hymn to the upcoming European Single Market, complete with EEC stars back-projected on to the set behind him. It won – though no thanks to Britain, who gave it nul points.
The contests of 1993 and 1994 were stunning statements of the new era that seemed to have come into being. The first year saw the debut of Bosnia, whose singer Muhamad Fazlagić had had to dodge bullets to escape from Sarajevo to participate. And in 1994, Russia joined in. A country that, a decade ago, had been aiming SS20 missiles at our capital cities was now sharing the Eurovision stage. How was that for detente?
Russia’s involvement has given rise to much of the Eurovision politics since then – where the onstage animosity goes back to Ukraine’s Verka Sedushka wishing “Lasha Tumbai” (nonsense lyrics, but he sang them to sound very like “Russia goodbye”) in 2007. (Verka also shouted out “Dance into Europe” during his bizarre, anarchic song.) In 2016, another win for Ukraine came with one of the contest’s most openly political songs, 1944. It told the story of Stalin’s deportation of 240,000 Tatars from Crimea in that year – but Europe’s contest voters understood well that the song was actually about Putin’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014.
No surprise then that, this year, on May 14, the night of the final, Kalush Orchestra will send a clear message to the estimated 180-million strong audience with Stefania: “We want to be European.”
The song’s own lyrics seem terribly prescient: “I’ll always find my way home,” raps Oleh Psiuk, “even if all roads are destroyed.”
Should it win, the 2023 contest will – in theory – be held in Kyiv; a vote of confidence in Ukraine and its ability to survive Putin’s onslaught and remain European and, most of all, free.
Chris West is the author of Eurovision! A History of Modern Europe through the World's Greatest Song Contest (Melville House UK)