The six members of Ukrainian rap-folk group Kalush Orchestra won this year’s Eurovision Song Contest as a show of international support for their war-torn country, which Russia invaded on February 24. “They want to destroy our culture,” says Oleh Psiuk, 28, the group’s founder and singer. Billboard on Zoom via a translator. “We came to Eurovision to show everyone that our culture exists. That our music is alive.
The Kalush Orchestra‘s victory on May 14 in Turin, Italy – where a Eurovision record 438 audience points for their song “Stefania” helped beat 24 other finalists – also helped the war effort in ways more practical. The band auctioned off the crystal microphone trophy they collected in Italy and the pink bucket hat Psiuk wore on stage, raising $900,000, which will be used to purchase aerial drones for the Ukrainian military. “We are doing everything in our power to help,” says Psiuk, speaking from Berlin two days after performing at a charity concert at the Brandenburg Gate.
Prior to this Berlin show, Kalush Orchestra had returned to Lviv, where the sound of explosions has become a regular occurrence – and where Kharkiv-born photographer Sasha Maslov took these images for Billboard.
“There is a constant feeling of stress and anxiety because there are constant airborne alarms, and you don’t know which house will be hit by a bomb or a missile,” says Psiuk, who lives in Kalush, a city located at the foot of the hills. Carpathian Mountains, from which the group takes its name.
A song for Mother Ukraine
Kalush Orchestra wrote its Eurovision-winning entry last year as a tribute to Psiuk’s mother, Stefania. After the Russian invasion, the song, which mixes traditional Ukrainian folk melodies with modern hip-hop rhythms and rhymes, took on symbolic importance as a unifying message of strength and resilience for many Ukrainians, inspiring many videos on TikTok and Instagram. “Very soon the song broadened its meaning to all mothers who care for their children and protect them from the scourge of war,” says Psiuk. “The song is now in the hearts and ears of Ukrainians.” The set design for the band’s Eurovision performance – featuring images of a mother’s tear-filled eyes – reinforced the theme of unconditional love at the heart of “Stefania”, and the band regularly performs in traditional Ukrainian costumes. “We take older folklore and make it cool and trendy,” says the singer, who cites Eminem as his favorite artist. “Our goal is to make Ukrainian music popular, not only in Ukraine but all over the world.”
Help others in need
Three days after the invasion of Russia, Psiuk created a volunteer organization called Ty de? (“Where are you?”) which helps displaced citizens find shelter, accommodation, transport and medicine. The organization has about 35 members operating in several cities in Ukraine. “We have a Telegram chat, and any Ukrainian person can participate in it, write the help they need, and we will do everything possible,” says Psiuk. Another of the original members of the Kalush Orchestra – Slavik Hnatenko, known as MC KylymMen – passed up the opportunity to perform in Turin because he was fighting for Ukraine in the volunteer forces. His bandmates stay in regular contact with him. “It is fully equipped. He’s fine,” says Psiuk, who along with his bandmates had to get permission from the Ukrainian government to travel to Italy for Eurovision. (Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country.) “We haven’t had the opportunity to have proper rehearsals [before the competition]so we had to rehearse in urgent mode.
hopes for peace
After returning from Turin, Kalush Orchestra was greeted at the Polish-Ukrainian border by throngs of fans, leading to an impromptu outdoor performance of “Stefania”. Since Eurovision, the group has used its increased notoriety to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis of the war and raise funds for its country. Plans are now underway for “lots of gigs and shows” later this year, Psiuk says, although the band’s priority is to do whatever they can to help end the current dispute. Despite everything Ukraine has endured over the past four months, Psiuk says he is optimistic about the prospect of better days ahead. “If a person is bereft of hope, then how do you go on living?” he asks. “Faith and hope for our quick victory is what brings us closer to that. Ukrainians are now united like never before, and each of us is doing everything we can to defeat the enemy. We believe that will happen very soon and we will all quickly rebuild our country together.
This story originally appeared in the June 25, 2022 issue of Billboard.