Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra’s upbeat, melodic entry for this month’s Eurovision Song Contest was written as a tribute to the frontman’s mother, but it has become an anthem to the nation’s war-ravaged motherland since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Stefania is the most-watched song on YouTube among the 35 national entries that will compete in the Eurovision Song Contest next week in Italy’s northern industrial city of Turin.
While some bookmakers and data analysts have pegged others to win, the 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 wrote in Stefania.
The lyrics have become more poignant as Russian missiles pound Ukrainian cities and villages, forcing more than 11 million people to flee the country already.
“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 recognisable 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.
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 bellicose claim that the former Soviet republic was always part of Russia.
“We ourselves show that Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian ethnic code exists,” Psiuk 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 primitive, difficult-to-play woodwind instrument called a telenka, played by lead singer Tymofii Muzychuk.
The band members mix break dancing 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.
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, travelling 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 organised 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.”
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 home town of Kalush, which is tucked in the Carpathian Mountains, south of the western city of Lviv.
It is an evolution from the original Kalush hip hop group that Psiuk also fronted.
After Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s entry to the Eurovision was kicked out of the contest in a move organisers said aimed to keep politics out of the hugely popular event, which was viewed last year by 183 million people.
Psiuk said Russia’s exclusion from Eurovision, along with other cultural and sporting events, could send a message to Russians “who may say they do not understand the situation in full … that there is a reason that the whole world, Europe, is banning them”.
Ukraine first joined the Eurovision Song Contest 19 years ago.
It has won twice since, both times with songs performed primarily in Ukrainian: by Ruslana in 2004 and Jamala in 2016.
Psiuk 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.