Kalush Orchestra: On the Road With Ukraine's Winning Eurovision Entry

We followed the Eurovision 2022 winners on their long, hard journey from war-torn Ukraine to victory in Turin.

16 May 2022, 3:15pm

By 6PM on the Wednesday of Eurovision week, Ukraine are firmly into the competition’s exhausting rhythm. The week-long festivities in Turin, Italy, only officially kicked off a couple of days before, at the traditional opening ceremony – a glamorous turquoise carpet event – with the 41 participating nations parading themselves in front of the earliest arriving fans and a smattering of global media. 

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But the six lads who make up Kalush Orchestra – and their small team of creative and official support – have been based in the northern Italian city since late April. Initially, rehearsals and a steady stream of interviews took up all of their time. Today offers a momentary respite in their hectic schedules: they only just qualified for Saturday’s grand final the night before. Briefly, there was pause for celebration. Now it’s back to work. 

Representing your country at Eurovision is always a fascinating affair. For just a week, each artist is thrown into the spotlight, becoming the centre of a continent’s attention. Doing so when your home country is in the grip of a brutal and unprecedented war, I’d assumed, would turn what’s usually a joyous and light-hearted occasion into a whole new challenge. 

In the lobby of Turin’s Hotel Universo, the team’s temporary home, the band are preparing to perform on stage at the Eurovillage – a specially-constructed festival – at Parco del Valentino in Turin’s city centre. Boxes brimming with their trademark pink bucket hats are loaded onto an awaiting coach; there’s dancing and pipe-playing, alongside a fair few cigarettes. Lead rapper Oleh Psiuk psyches himself up for another round, a Ukrainian flag sewed into the sleeve of his long-sleeve black t-shirt. 

Kalush Orchestra performing.

By the time we arrive at the backstage entrance for that evening’s show, a crowd of fans and television cameras are ready and waiting. Kalush Orchestra is mobbed; it takes close to two hours for the band to complete their media round. There are photo shoots, on-camera interviews and radio recordings, but with none of the lineup fluent in English, questions and answers come through a translator. 

“Any victory for Ukraine in any arena is very important these days,” he says, repeatedly to all who ask what a victory would mean. “If we win, it will lift the spirits of so many Ukrainians across the country and around the world. There hasn’t been much good news in Ukraine for a while.”

Iryena Shafinska and Vitalli Lirnyk.

Amidst the throng, however, are two Ukrainian speakers live-streaming all that goes on: Iryena Shafinska and Vitalli Lirnyk. As the band heads to the side of the stage for a final soundcheck, I sit down on a bench with the pair of them. 

Ukrainian-born, but now New Jersey based, the husband and wife are diehard Eurovision megafans. It was Iryena who fell in love with the contest first, watching it as much as possible while her home country was still in the USSR. When Ukraine joined the competition in 2003, she started to follow it religiously, attending in person whenever possible. 

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“Usually,” Shafinska explains, “this is a happy time for us. We get to travel, celebrate, and see friends from all over the world. This year obviously feels different. I can’t enjoy myself. Every time I talk to someone and they express support, I start baring my soul. I can’t help it when I think about what is happening.” Most years, this pair of computer engineers try to do whatever they can to support the group of Ukrainian fans and media who make their way to wherever that year’s event takes place. This time? They are the official fan club’s sole representatives. 

“We want to act as a bridge between people here and back at home,” Shafinska says. “We’re playing the role of both fans and reporters.” Livestreaming on Instagram allows her to share what’s happening with those who couldn’t make it to Turin, and the pair can ask questions on behalf of notably absent Ukrainian media. 

In effect, they’re unofficial members of the band’s entourage, but it’s far from their only purpose. “When journalists approach me,” Shafinska explains, “I can then introduce them to Eurovision fans back in Ukraine, real people with real stories that need to be heard, who are trying to enjoy the contest as much as possible – even if they occasionally have to run into a bomb shelter.”

Oleh Psiuk of Kalush Orchestra during a press call.

“We’re also trying to make Ukraine visible here,” Lirnyk chimes in, the Kalush boys now preparing to take to the stage right beside us. “We want to spread the word about what is happening and share the support we’re seeing with people back in Ukraine. Eurovision was created to unite Europe after World War II, and for Ukrainians it’s important to see how right now Europe is uniting around them.” 

Shafinska believes a Ukraine win will resonate beyond Eurovision. “All we have right now is bad news,” she says, “all headlines are bombings, death and destruction. This would be a signal that Europe has seen we are talented people: artists, musicians… That we can do amazing things.”

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Just metres away, a vast crowd is drunkenly jumping around as they await their headline act for the evening. Shafinska and Lirnyk, meanwhile, unravel stories of their loved ones struggling to survive back at home: friends and family traumatised by the ravages of war; mothers trapped in basements infested with lice and no access to food or water. Iryena can’t help but start crying. How are they coping with the juxtaposition between the celebratory atmosphere here and the situation in Ukraine? 

“I know why I’m here,” Shafinska replies defiantly, “to tell my story, and those of everyone back at home. I’m here so the band can hear their own language.” She gestures out towards the festivities in front of us: “And I know this is our future. We will have fun. We will be joyful. We will dance, and we will host Eurovision. This is what we are fighting for.”

A few minutes later, Kalush Orchestra performs, and the crowd goes wild. Standing side stage, Shafinska livestreams the entire set on Instagram, before dutifully following them to their next engagement. 

Kalush Orchestra performing to the crowds.

The next morning, I meet Oleh Psiuk at another hotel, rented out by the band’s label for television interviews. “I’m a little tired,” he says through a translator, understated yet undeterred. “There’s so much going on. But we are here on a special mission: to show that Ukrainian culture exists and is thriving, even if attempts are being made to destroy it.” 

Until recently, Psiuk made music full-time, but he’s been running a volunteer organisation since the war broke out, helping Ukrainians in need find transportation, shelter and medicine as their country continues to fight off Russian forces.

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Psiuk was born in Kalush, Western Ukraine in 1994. By his mid-teens, he’d started making music. His wasn’t a musical family; he wasn’t signed up to creative extracurricular activities. Instead, his education came from listening. Eminem’s back catalogue was his first exposure to rap and hip-hop. “Then,” he says, “I wanted to get to the roots of hip-hop culture: I listened to NWA and 80s rap, then made my way through the decades.”

Oleh Psiuk of Kalush Orchestra on the Eurovision tour bus.

Soon, Psiuk realised he could rap – “not that I was very good at first,” he adds, “but still, I continued.” Kalush was initially established in 2019 as a three-piece rap group. Late last year, Kalush Orchestra was formed, an extended group combining rap with folk music. Just two days before the war broke out on 24th February, the band found out they’d been chosen to represent their country at Eurovision. “Back then we were touring and having concerts all over Ukraine,” he says. “We were so excited when we heard the news: We’d worked so hard to make it happen.”

He wrote “Stefania”, their Eurovision song, as a tribute to his mother. She heard it for the first time when they performed it back in Ukraine during the Eurovision selection process. “The band,” he says, “brings together traditional, ancient Ukrainian folklore with modern hip-hop sounds. And while ‘Stefania’ was written as a tribute to my mother, since the war started it has taken on many more meanings.” 

Now its lyrics feel more profound (as one line goes: “I’ll always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed”). Ukrainians who hear it think of their country as a mother, too, Psiuk says. “Many people at home who don’t normally follow our band or this contest,” he says, “are now watching closely. It feels a real responsibility.”

A few hours later, we arrive at Italian coffee chain Lavazza’s fancy Turin HQ. The German consulate has hired out their vast event space for a boozy reception. It’s the sort of soft diplomacy that Eurovision does so well: dignitaries, delegations and invited guests celebrating their respective country’s contribution to European culture. 

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This year, of course, there’s no escaping the backdrop of war. While Kalush are keen to garner support and exposure wherever they can, the nations at the forefront of European efforts to support Ukraine see in the band a way of expressing solidarity. Last night, Kalush duetted with the French delegation in an impromptu performance of “Stefania” on a city centre arch; there are plans to do similar short shows with plenty of others. 

Germany's Malik Harris meeting Oleh Psiuk.

It’s why Kalush Orchestra have also been asked to perform here alongside the German act, Malik Harris. Upstairs, in an air-conditioned dressing room, they’re sat together rehearsing. Down below, a German diplomat is welcoming the crowd. “There is a war going on in Europe right now,” she says, “and Eurovision is about bringing people together.” She pauses for applause: “We are deeply shocked by the war of aggression waged by Vladimir Putin against Ukraine which threatens to destroy the foundations of peace in Europe. Germany’s repose is unequivocal: We stand by Ukraine’s side.”

A few minutes later, Kalush performs “Stefania” and are later joined by Harris. Above them hang the flags of Germany, Italy and the European Union. This might be Eurovision, not the United Nations, but it’s a powerful symbol. 

Kalush Orchestra performing underneath the flags.

Each country competing at Turin’s Pala Alpitour arena arrives with a Head of Delegation generally employed by their respective national broadcaster. While the artists who arrive might change year on year, steering them successfully through the endless rehearsals, events and associated activities requires experience and knowledge of this unique institution. Oksana Skybinska has filled this role for Ukraine since 2017, working in the International Relations department of UA:PBC. Normally based in Kyiv, the broadcaster has relocated to Lviv in the west of the country since the outbreak of war.

On Friday afternoon, in a short break before that night’s live jury show, we meet in a quiet logistics tent within the secure Eurovision compound. Skybinska’s phone pings relentlessly, but with the band resting at the hotel, it’s the first time she’s had a moment to reflect in the days I’ve been with them. 

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“It’s intense,” she says, “but that’s a good thing: We appreciate all this attention from the global community.” She’s known her fellow Eurovision regulars for years. Being here, she says, feeling the support from her international colleagues and counterparts, has been incredibly comforting. 

Oksana Skybinska, the head of the Ukraine delegation for Eurovision 2022.

“There’s also stress,” Skybinska adds. "We’re here, but we cannot feel relaxed. How can you be when your loved ones are still there? Of course we have worries. But what helps is that we are doing what we can. We’re doing something we believe in. Yes, it’s the cultural domain, but it’s our contribution to supporting the war effort.”

In the first few days after war broke out, she explains, unsurprisingly little thought was given to Eurovision. “We were focussed on saving lives,” Skybinska says, “but soon we returned to focus on the competition.” Thankfully, her team had something to work with – both the song and artist had already been picked. It was decided that Ukraine would continue in its plan to compete, with support all the way up into government. “But,” she’s clear, “we took things step by step. At a time of war, it’s hard to plan too far forward.”

The first task was to ensure the band and team could make their way to Italy. “This year, we have an all-male band and mostly male delegation,” she explains. Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 aren’t presently permitted to leave the country, and one of the original Kalush lineup – serving in territorial defence in Kyiv – decided to stay on the frontlines. 

“For the others we needed to get special authorisation from the Ministry of Culture,” Skybinska says. “Meanwhile we set about preparing all the necessary materials: music, videos, pictures, descriptions. It’s endless.” With the band spread across the country, this was no mean feat, but they pulled together what they could remotely. Once permission was granted for the band to temporarily leave Ukraine, she coordinated a promotional tour for Kalush in the run-up to Turin. 

Kalush Orchestra performing.

“It was a chance for the band to rehearse together, and to film,” Skybinska says. Delegations from other counties stepped in to support with resources and kit when needed. “And,” she says, “these trips helped us work through the logistics of getting the band together and out of the country so, for Eurovision itself things, would run smoothly.” The band members arrived in a city in the west of Ukraine, where cars and vans travelled in convoy across the Polish border and onto an airport. Journeys that would usually take a few hours became two-day long operations. 

With the band now firmly in Turin, the broadcaster’s efforts in Ukraine have turned to Saturday night’s live show. “We need to make sure it goes smoothly,” Skybinska explains. “We are working from a bunker studio in a Lviv basement.” Their commentator, points announcer and whole production team will work underground, ensuring – whatever happens – the broadcast is uninterrupted. “That way we can ensure all Ukrainians who watch and listen this year can do so without anything going wrong,” she says. 

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This year, that’s an audience beyond Ukraine’s borders. All over Europe, she says, Ukrainians will be tuning in. Her team is making sure refugees – whether in Norway, Poland or Germany – will have access to the Ukrainian broadcast. 

Kalush Orchestra resting between performances.

Despite the complexities, Skybinska is in no doubt coming to Turin was worth all the efforts. “It’s a moment of connection,” she says. “Connecting people through something positive that can give hope. Seeing Ukraine, even in this difficult time, present on a big international stage and showcasing what we have to offer…” 

She trails off. All week I’ve seen Skybinska composed and in control, but she is now briefly overwhelmed with emotion. “We have so much beauty in our country,” she says, eyes moist. “We want to show the world. And we can support these boys on this stage, while they stand up there for all of us. It’s a moment of unity for Ukrainians all over the world, wherever they are. It’s something to give people hope who truly need it.”

Nadiia Grytsyk fled Ukraine with her son and now lives in Turin, Italy.

An hour later, and I’m sat in a quiet café, just a short walk from Eurovision’s bustling centre. Sat opposite is Nadiia Grytsyk, who arrived in Turin just a week ago – not for Eurovision, like many other recent arrivals, but as a refugee escaping the conflict. “To tell you the truth,” she says, “with everything going on in Ukraine, I only heard that Turin was hosting Eurovision – and that it was happening this weekend – when I arrived here.” 

“I’m a lecturer in English by profession,” she continues, sipping her orange juice. “Last year, around this time, I was doing some research with my students to learn about Eurovision. A year later, I could never have imagined I’d be here for it in this situation.”

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For Grytsyk, home is Chernihiv, in the north of Ukraine. The city was one of the first to face the full force of Russia’s aggression when war broke out, coming under a relentless siege. With her parents, in-laws, husband and son, she sheltered in a bunker as fighting unfolded. “There were nights we’d sit and pray together,” she says, “thinking we would not make it through.” 

Her husband’s parents were killed when Russia bombed their apartment building on 3rd March. “You will recognise the picture from the front pages,” she tells me, showing me a video of the destruction on her phone. “This is where I lived when we were married. My son was born there. My husband’s parents died there. It’s our reality.”

Four days later, the rest of Grytsyk’s family escaped to the relative safety of west Ukraine for close to two months. In late April, her son was offered a scholarship to study at an international school in Turin. With her husband staying in Ukraine, Grytsyk and her son travelled via Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary before finally arriving in Italy. 

“I’m not a huge Kalush fan, to be honest,” she says with a smile. “I’m older; it’s the sort of music my son likes.” Still, this year, Grytsyk tells me, she’ll be watching closely. “The song ‘Stefania’ is about mothers. Right now, being a mother is my main priority. Ukraine fighting for its life – our motherland – will make the show, whatever happens, all the more meaningful.” 

Ukrainian fans react to their Eurovision 2022 win.

On Saturday, after a nail-biting end to voting, Ukraine is announced Eurovision’s 2022 winner. On its stage, in front of an estimated 200 million strong audience, Kalush Orchestra celebrates by waving their Ukrainian flags proudly. “This victory is for every Ukrainian,” Oleh Psiuk shouts proudly in his victory speech. “Slava Ukraini!” A day later, Psiuk will return to Ukraine alongside the rest of the band. But for one night, there is still time to revel in their triumph.

Amidst the celebrations I get a text from Grytsyk, who is watching from her host family’s living room. “Kalush winning is one step to the victory of my motherland in this terrible war,” she writes. “Next year I hope to see Eurovision 2023 in a free Ukraine. We are jumping around like children. I can’t stop smiling.”

Thanks to Airbnb and Eurail for supporting the logistics of our reporting. Find out more about Airbnb’s work supporting Ukrainian refugees and Eurail’s interrail passess.

@MikeSegalov / @christopherbethell / @bekkycalverphoto

Tagged:

Ukraine, Noisey, Eurovision, ukraine invasion, Eurovision 2022

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