Ukrainian rapper’s tribute to his mother wins hearts ahead of Eurovision contest

As Russian missiles pound Ukrainian cities and villages, one band’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest has emerged as an anthem for the war-ravaged motherland.

Initially written as a tribute to the mother of Kalush Orchestra’s frontman, Stefania is the most-watched song on YouTube among the 35 national entries that will compete in the Eurovision Song Contest next week in Turin, Italy.

The hugely popular international event, which was viewed last year by 183 million people, runs annually and features mainly European countries. 

While some odds-makers and data analysts have pegged others to win, the upbeat, melodic song by Kalush Orchestra is quickly becoming a sentimental favourite.

“I’ll always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed,” Kalush Orchestra frontman Oleh Psiuk writes in Stefania.

The lyrics have become more poignant after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced more than 11 million to flee the country.

WATCH | Official music video for Kalush Orchestra’s song Stefania:

“Indeed, some stuff in here was written long before the war, and it was dedicated to my mother,” Psiuk told The Associated Press at his hotel in Turin, wearing a bright bucket hat that makes him instantly recognizable to anyone who has streamed Stefania.

“After it all started with the war and the hostilities, it took on additional meaning, and many people started seeing it as their mother, Ukraine, in the meaning of the country. It has become really close to the hearts of so many people in Ukraine,” he said.

Performance will send political message

Mixing traditional Ukrainian folk music with hip hop, Kalush Orchestra’s Eurovision performance will have an added political message, representing the uniqueness of Ukrainian culture against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that the former Soviet republic has always been part of Russia.

“We ourselves show that Ukrainian culture and [an] Ukrainian ethnic code exists,” Psuik said. “Our purpose is to make Ukrainian music popular, not only in Ukraine but all over Europe. And Eurovision is the best platform for that.”

Stefania incorporates old Ukrainian melodies and unique musical pitches from a difficult-to-play woodwind instrument called a telenka, played by singer Tymofii Muzychuk.

The band members mix breakdancing with hopak, a Ukrainian folk dance, in an energetic performance punctuated by Psiuk’s rap interludes. Costumes feature embroidered Cossack shirts and vests mixed with contemporary streetwear.

Ukrainian rapper's tribute to his mother wins hearts ahead of Eurovision contest
Kalush Orchestra, pictured here rehearsing their song Stefania, will represent Ukraine at the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, Italy, next week. (Corinne Cumming/EBU)

Psiuk and five bandmates, all men between the ages of 21 to 35, received special permission from Ukrainian authorities to travel to Turin to participate in Eurovision, traveling by land to Poland and then flying to Italy. One original band member stayed behind to fight.

Psiuk, 27, left behind a network of volunteers he organized two days into the war to help mete out logistical help to people across Ukraine seeking shelter or transport. All will return to Ukraine when the song contest finishes.

“We feel a big responsibility,” Psiuk said. “It’s very important for us to be as useful to the country as possible. We want to represent our country decently.”

After Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s entry to the Eurovision was kicked out of the contest in a move organizers said aimed to keep politics out of the event.

Embracing folk and hip hop

Kalush Orchestra is more than just a musical group. It is a cultural project that includes folklore scholars and purposefully combines hip hop with traditional Ukrainian music, dance and costumes, some long-forgotten, according to Psiuk.

The six-month-old project takes its name from Psiuk’s hometown of Kalush, which is tucked in the Carpathian Mountains, south of the western city of Lviv. It’s an evolution from the original Kalush hip-hop group that Psiuk also fronted.

Ukraine has won the Eurovision competition twice, both times with songs performed primarily in Ukrainian: by Ruslana in 2004 and Jamala in 2016.

Psuik attributes Ukraine’s success to “the peculiar character that our music has.”

“I really hope that after we perform it at the Eurovision Song Contest, Ukrainian music will be even more popular and heard,” he said.

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