Folk rap bands are hot names in the betting market, and their presence at the competition has captured the imagination of fans from every participating country.
“As we speak, our country and our culture are under threat. But we want to show that we are alive, that Ukrainian culture is alive, that it is unique, diverse and beautiful,” said the band’s leader Otto. Legg Pushuk told CNN.
“This is our way of being useful to the country,” he said.
At first glance, the six seem to get along well with their dozens of more eccentric Eurovision brethren.
Most of the members are well-dressed In national clothes, rapper Psyuk also wears a pink bucket hat. One member is overwhelmed with graphic embroidery, with only his mouth visible, while the band’s double bass player wears a ball of wool.
But it took some effort to get the Kalush Orchestra on the Eurovision stage, and their journey is deeply intertwined with the war at home.
The band initially finished second in a national tryout in Ukraine, but they were promoted after it was discovered that the winner had traveled to Russia-annexed Crimea before. On February 22, two days before Russian troops invaded Ukraine, they appeared as the country’s port of entry.
“All members of the group are involved in the defense of the country in some way,” Psyuk told CNN via email.
A member of the team’s media team joined the territorial defence and fought on the front lines, leaving the team understaffed in Turin. At the same time, Psyuk volunteered to find shelter for internally displaced Ukrainians and organized the shipment of food and medicine.
The context of the conflict complicates Eurovision’s preparations. The group was forced to rehearse virtually until, after weeks of war, they were finally able to meet in Lviv.
Their songs took on a new meaning. “Stefania,” sung in Ukrainian, is a tribute to Psyuk’s mother, who still lives in the western city of Kalush, from which the band got its name. “On some days, rockets fly over people’s houses like a lottery ticket — no one knows where it’s going to hit,” Psyuk told CNN.
Organizers banned Russia from the competition for 24 hours, 24 hours after an initially widely criticized decision to allow it. The European Broadcasting Union concluded that the country’s presence “would bring the competition into disrepute”.
Belarus, which assisted in Moscow’s invasion, has been suspended due to suppression of media freedom in the country.
Meanwhile, Kalouch advanced to the semi-finals on Tuesday and drew rapturous cheers from the crowd as they took the stage. Eurovision is notoriously difficult to predict because its points system relies on jury verdicts and public votes from dozens of countries, but Kalouch seems like a safe bet to win the title this year.
A victory in Ukraine would mean the country has the right to host next year’s tournament – but it is far from certain whether such an event will be possible in Ukraine next May.
Still, Psyuk is optimistic. “We believe in our song … it has become a song about the motherland,” he said.
“If it turns out that we will win, Eurovision 2023 will be in Ukraine. In a new, complete Ukraine…a rebuilt, prosperous, happy country.”
The Kalush Orchestra joined a typical group of national contenders in this year’s competition, and while they were the clear favourites to win, a few other artists have managed to get Europe a voice in the rally.
Norway’s mysterious electronic duo Subwoolfer’s “Give That Wolf a Banana” also caused a stir.
The couple claim they formed on the moon 4.5 billion years ago and never took off their yellow canine masks. They’re most like a TikToked daft punk, the legendary French duo who hired David Lynch as their art director and made a splash at kids’ parties.
Entries from Sweden, Poland and Greece were less “out there” – all three countries that brought ballads to the table and are sure to interest the national jury.
Here are some words the seasoned Eurovision reporter never thought he would type: Britain could win this year.
That’s right — the country that has fielded the remains of Bonnie Tyler and Engelbert Humperdinck to compete with rising stars in Europe over the past decade has now reluctantly accepted that modernity isn’t just a fad that’s turned into a TikTok sensation. Games for the European under 65 crowd.
Sam Ryder’s “Spaceman” is an exceptionally strong British entry inspired by Bowie in the days of Elton John and Ziggy Stardust, with some bookmakers only giving Ukraine better odds of winning.
But the song relies heavily on the extraordinary vocal acrobatics that helped Ryder spread in the early days of the pandemic — so he can’t afford to take a break if he’s going to break Britain’s 25-year Eurovision curse.
The best (and worst) of the rest
Italy is hoping to host a show on Saturday night to commemorate the first post-Covid Eurovision in front of a full audience. The 2020 edition was cancelled and last year was held with crowd restrictions.
That game marked the bizarre release of two years of repression, and the tone of this game seemed a bit traditional in comparison. But it’s still Eurovision, and it’s still weird — so inadvertent viewers who tune in specifically shake their heads, tsk tsk, and won’t be disappointed.
Already eliminated is Latvia, whose eco-friendly national anthem “Eat your salad” begins with “I don’t eat meat, I eat vegetables and p*ssy.” Unsurprisingly, organizers asked them to skip the feline allusions, and in doing so, erased the song’s only interesting feature.
Serbia’s Konstrakta started her entry “In Corpore Sano” with a question that kept us awake at night: “What’s Meghan Markle’s secret to healthy hair?” Then she kind of… continued the theme. “What would it be?” Konstrakta sings in her native language. “I think it’s all about deep hydration.”
Last year, the landlocked micro-nation of San Marino inexplicably added Florida to their songs, before forcing the bewildered rapper to sit back and watch European people shrug off his fading star power after another, dumping the country to the fourth from the bottom. Finish.
This year, Achille Lauro – who goes by the stage name of a famously hijacked cruise ship – took over the mantle of the smallest nation in the competition. With tattoos, an androgynous aesthetic and lyrics that compare his heart to a sex toy, Lauro could be the bad boy of Eurovision 2022. (Though he still managed to beat last year’s winner, who was eventually cleared of cocaine use after a viral video that sparked an investigation by organizers.)
Other vistas worth your time include Estonia’s answer to Johnny Cash by Stefan. He accentuates Western themes in his music videos, and while his Eastwood credentials extend to being able to don a poncho and stare somberly into the mid-range, his raspy voice and catchy chorus may give the lead cause trouble.
Then there’s party-busters Australia. Originally invited to celebrate the show’s 60th anniversary in 2015, Australia continues to rock every year, boxed wine in hand, embarrassingly mocking European inside jokes, and hoping to win the show for die-hard fans who wake up in the wee hours to watch home.
To be fair to Australia, they’re all out – this year’s rival Sheldon Riley’s hit “Not the Same” is expected to do well.
Eurovision’s popularity in the southern hemisphere is a testament to its growing strength, even in its seventh decade.
The Eurovision Song Contest, despite its many peculiarities, has a special place in the cultural calendar. But for the Kalush Orchestra, winning will have a unique meaning, and it’s hard to imagine a more popular winner in the tournament’s history.
“For us, winning means appreciating Ukrainian music for its uniqueness and beauty,” Pushuk told CNN. “The victory will also lift the spirits of the Ukrainian people, who have not had any rest (for) happiness for more than two months.”
Eurovision airs Saturday at 9pm local time (3pm ET) and is available to viewers in the US on Peacock.
CNN’s Xiaofei Xu contributed to this article.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Slavik Gnatenko, a member of the Kalush Orchestra social media team, has joined the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces. Dancer Vlad Kurochka is in Italy with the group.