Eurovision 2022: Ukrainian Kalush Orchestra the favorite to win Saturday’s match

The folk rap group are runaway favorites in the betting markets and their presence at the tournament has captured the imagination of fans from every competing country.

“Right now, our country and our culture are under threat. But we want to show that we are alive, the Ukrainian culture is alive, it is unique, diverse and beautiful,” Oleg Psyuk, the band’s frontman, told CNN.

“This is our way of being useful to our country,” he said.

At first glance, the six-member group seems to fit comfortably with dozens of their more eccentric Eurovision brethren.

Most members wear extensive national costume, with rapper Psyuk also wearing a pink bucket hat. One member is so immersed in patterned embroidery that only his mouth is visible, while the group’s double bassist comes dressed as a ball of yarn.

But to get Kalush Orchestra on the Eurovision stage, something had to happen, and their journey is deeply intertwined with the war at home.

The band initially finished second in Ukraine’s national selection competition, but moved up the ranks after it was revealed that the winner had previously traveled to Russia-annexed Crimea. They were unveiled as the country’s entry on February 22, two days before Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

“All members of the group are involved in the defense of the country in one way or another,” Psyuk told CNN via email.

One member, Vlad Kurochka, joined the territorial defense and is fighting on the front line meaning a late replacement was needed for the match. Psyuk, meanwhile, volunteers to find internal displaced Ukrainians shelter and organize the transport of food and medicines.

The background of conflict complicated preparations for Eurovision. The group had to rehearse virtually until they could finally meet in Lviv after weeks of war.

And their song has taken 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 takes its name. “Some days, missiles fly over people’s homes and it’s like a lottery — nobody knows where it will hit,” Psyuk told CNN.

Organizers banned Russia from the competition in February, 24 hours after an initial, much-criticized decision to allow Russia to participate. The European Broadcasting Union concluded that the country’s presence would “discredit competition”.

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Belarus, which aided the invasion of Moscow, had already been suspended due to the crackdown on media freedom in the country.

Kalush, meanwhile, sailed through Tuesday’s semifinals and drew wild cheers from the crowd as they took the stage. Eurovision is notoriously difficult to predict as the points system relies on both jury verdicts and public votes from dozens of countries, but Kalush seems like a safe bet to win this year’s crown.

A Ukrainian victory would mean that the country would have the right to host next year’s competition, but it is far from certain that such an event will be possible in Ukraine in May next year.

However, Psyuk is optimistic. “We believe in our song… it has become a song about the motherland,” he said.

“If it turns out that we are going to win, Eurovision 2023 will be held in Ukraine. In a new, integral Ukraine… a rebuilt, prosperous, happy country.”

The Norwegian electro duo Subwoolfer will compete against Ukraine and dozens of other hopeful candidates.

the frontrunners

Kalush Orchestra joins a quintessential ragtag group of national entrants to this year’s competition, and while they are the clear favorites to win, a number of other performers have managed to get Europe talking ahead of the contest.

Italy could take the crown for the second straight year if hometown heroes Mahmood and Blanco live up to it. Both are successful artists in the country; now they join forces to emulate Maneskin, the punk rockers who won in defeat last year.

Subwoofer, Norway’s enigmatic electro duo, has also attracted a lot of attention with their entry “Give That Wolf a Banana”.

The pair claim they formed on the moon 4.5 billion years ago and never remove their yellow dog masks. They most resemble a TikTok-ified Daft Punk, had the legendary French couple hire David Lynch as their artistic director and hit the kid’s party circuit.

Less “out there” are entries from Sweden, Poland and Greece — all three have brought ballads to the table that are sure to interest the national juries.

And here are some words this seasoned Eurovision reporter never thought he would type: The UK could win this year.

Sam Ryder, pictured here rehearsing in Turin, represents the UK's best chance of winning the match in a generation.

That’s right — the nation that for the past decade has sent the remnants of Bonnie Tyler and Engelbert Humperdinck to compete with Europe’s newcomers has begrudgingly accepted that modernity is not just a passing fad, but has become a TikTok sensation in a game for Europe’s under-65 demographics.

Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” is an unusually strong British entry inspired by Elton John and Ziggy Stardust era Bowie, with some bookmakers only giving Ukraine better chances of winning.

But the song draws heavily on the remarkable vocal acrobatics that helped Ryder go viral during the early days of the pandemic – so he can’t afford a bad night if he wants to break the UK’s 25-year Eurovision curse.

The best (and worst) of the rest

Italy hopes to give a show on Saturday evening, on the occasion of the first post-Covid Eurovision Song Contest before a full audience. The 2020 edition was canceled and last year’s took place with restrictions on the public.

That match marked the release of two years of suppressed craziness, and the tone of this match is a little more traditional by comparison. But this is still Eurovision, and it’s still weird — so casual viewers tuning in exclusively to shake their heads and tut won’t be disappointed.

Already eliminated is Latvia, whose eco-conscious anthem “Eat Your Salad” began with the line “I don’t eat meat, I eat veggies and p*ssy.” Unsurprisingly, the organizers asked them to skip the feline allusions, thereby wiping out the song’s only interesting feature.

Konstrakta believes in the importance of moisturizing the hair of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

Serbian Konstrakta kicks off its entry, “In Corpore Sano,” with the question that keeps us up at night: “What could be the secret to Meghan Markle’s healthy hair?” Then she just continues with that theme. “What could it be?” Konstrakta sings in her native language. “I think it’s all about the deep hydration.”

Last year, the landlocked micronation of San Marino inexplicably included Flo Rida in their song, then forced the stunned rapper to sit and watch as the people of Europe shrug their shoulders in succession at its waning star power and take the country to a fourth. dumped from below. finish.

This year Achille Lauro, a man who takes his stage name from a famously hijacked cruise ship, takes the title of the smallest country in the competition. With a tattooed, androgynous aesthetic and lyrics that compare his heart to a sex toy, Lauro is likely to be the bad boy of Eurovision 2022. (While he still has some way to go to beat last year’s winners, who were ultimately acquitted of the taking cocaine air after a viral video sparked an investigation by organizers.)

Other long shots worth checking out are Stefan, Estonia’s answer to Johnny Cash. He’s played the western theme in his music video, and while his Eastwoodian credentials reach as far as he can wear a poncho and stare gloomily into the mid-range, his throaty vocals and catchy chorus might bother the frontrunners.

Albanian contestant Ronela Hajati arrives for the opening ceremony of the competition.

And then there are the party crashers Australia. Originally invited in 2015 to mark the show’s 60th anniversary, Australia continues to rock each year, wine in hand, clumsily laughing at Europe’s inside jokes and hoping to win a win for the hardcore fans who hit the early stages. wake up for hours to watch the show at home.

To be fair to Australia, they’re giving it their all — and this year’s competitor Sheldon Riley’s aptly named track “Not the Same” is expected to deliver a respectable finish.

And Eurovision’s popularity in the southern hemisphere is testament to its growing strength, even in its seventh decade.

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An American knock-off — something dubbed the “American Song Contest,” which Europeans watch with the same suspicious frown they wear when processing its own-brand mayonnaise at a discount store — recently concluded in the United States, and a Netflix’s 2020 movie starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams introduced new demographics to the feverishly followed competition.

Eurovision, for all its idiosyncrasies, retains a special place on the cultural calendar. But winning would be of unique significance to Kalush Orchestra, and it’s hard to imagine a more popular winner in the tournament’s history.

“For us, the victory means appreciation for Ukrainian music, its uniqueness and beauty,” Psyuk told CNN. “The victory would also lift the spirit of the Ukrainian people, who have not had a break (of) joy for more than two months.”

Eurovision airs at 9pm local time (3pm ET) on Saturdays, and it’s available on Peacock to US viewers.

CNN’s Xiaofei Xu contributed to the report.

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