EDMONTON, Canada – This time last year, Oleh Psiuk felt a little nervous.
The 28-year-old from the small western Ukrainian town of Kalush was about to do something he had never experienced before, but he was ready to give it his all. Psiuk and his band, Kalush Orchestra, were set to perform on the Eurovision stage in Turin, Italy, in the midst of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Even though the band was the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the contest, with a huge lead on the so-called Big Five competitors – France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the U.K. – they still weren’t quite sure of their chances.
“Before the Eurovision finals, when you know there are 200 million people watching, there is a feeling of fear… Because when you go on stage and perform in front of 20,000 people — it's just a stadium, and when 200 million are there and we need to represent our country during the war, we understand that there is no way that something could go wrong. It was such a responsibility,” Psiuk told the Kyiv Independent in Edmonton, Canada, during their North American tour.
After performing their triumphant song “Stefania,” an ode to a mother, at last year's Eurovioson, Psiuk made a passionate appeal to the audience in halting English: “Save Mariupol, save Azovstal now!” The contest took place at the same time as Russian troops were besieging Azovstal, a steel mill that was the last Ukrainian-held part of the city of Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine.
Following the emotional performance, Psiuk’s mother wrote him a short text: “Ty molodets!” – Ukrainian for “You did great!”
The frontman knew he had to say those words despite the nerve-racking possibility of being disqualified: The European Broadcasting Union has long mandated that politics should be kept out of the Eurovision Song Contest – and even a direct reference to the war could count as such. Only three people, Psiuk said, knew he was going to go with it.
To everyone's surprise, Kalush Orchestra wasn't disqualified. It was deemed that Psiuk and other artists expressing support for the Ukrainian people was a humanitarian rather than political appeal in nature.
Kalush’s song eventually became the first Eurovision-winning song to feature a rap. A staggering 161 million viewers watched the Eurovision Song Contest on television that year.
Fast forward to 2023, and Oleh Psiuk and his band are now international spokespeople for the Ukrainian cause.
"We not only make music and show our culture, but our goal is also to make sure that information about the war in Ukraine does not leave the front pages,” Psiuk told the Kyiv Independent, adding that they always find ways to raise funds for Ukraine, inform people, and “call them to some action while also showing our music."
Following its Eurovision win, the band sold its trophy for $900,000, with proceeds earmarked for the purchase of combat drones for Ukraine's military. It raised over $1.4 million in the months leading to its fall North American tour. The funds from tickets sold in Canada and the U.S. went to charity organizations, including Help Heroes of Ukraine and Gate To Ukraine which were founded to allow anyone help Ukrainian families directly.
While in the U.S., the team decided to sell a brand new double bass they just started using and donate the money to Save Ukrainian Culture, a project of Ukraine’s Culture and Information Policy Ministry that helps with the reconstruction of destroyed cultural sites.
As ambassadors of the ministry’s project, they later transferred $8,000 to restore the Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda Museum in Skovorodynivka, a village in Kharkiv Oblast, after it was destroyed by a Russian artillery strike last May. The attack appeared to have been a deliberate act of cultural vandalism, as Skovoroda’s museum was in a tiny village not far from Kharkiv – nowhere near any obvious military targets.
Despite the moral burden of being Ukraine’s ambassadors in the midst of a war, sometimes the band members get to just be “boys from the block.” In between its U.S. concerts, Kalush Orchestra was able to film a clip in Los Angeles and drive through the streets they knew from the video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” And although they don't have much time for sightseeing when on tour, Psiuk says that when he's in a car, he looks out the window, not at his phone.
The most popular question the band gets while abroad, according to Psiuk, is about his pink bucket hat.
“You won’t believe it, but there’s no story behind it,” he said, adding that he was once in a music video with a pink hat. Afterward, he decided he would always wear a pink bucket hat. “Everyone thinks that there is some sort of legend behind it… Maybe we need to come up with a story!” he said, laughing.
But it wasn’t just the hat that drew people’s attention.
The combination of authentic Ukrainian and modern clothing elements made Kalush Orchestra instantly recognizable. This is how millions of Eurovision viewers discovered “Hutsul cheres” (a wide traditional men’s belt), “Bukovynian keptar” (a vest made of sheepskin), and “Pokuttia serdak” (a thick piece of cloth outerwear decorated primarily with colored threads).
Mixing authentic attributes with modern twists is applicable not just to their outfits: “We show our Ukrainian folklore; we just mixed it with a little bit of modern hip-hop and got something new and interesting. I don't know if anybody is doing quite the same. We show our real music, which is in our Ukrainian roots.”
As Eurovision hopes and fears are all but the distant past for the team, Psiuk and the Kalush Orchestra call on everybody to support this year’s contestant, pop group Tvorchi, who will perform in Liverpool, England on May 13.
“We know that Tvorchi is currently in the top five picks, according to bookmakers. Let’s see how it goes in the final and we wish the guys best of luck,” Psiuk told the Kyiv Independent in the days leading to the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest. “Please, make sure to support Ukraine!”
For Ukraine, which has won top honors three times in 20 years of participating — in 2004, 2016, and 2022 — the contest has always been hugely popular and valued as a way to align itself culturally with Europe. Now it is also seen as another — softer way — to keep Europe’s attention focused on the war.
Tvorchi’s song “Heart of Steel” was inspired, in their words, by the Ukrainian soldiers who worked to defend the now-ruined city of Mariupol. Pop culture and history have strange ways of intersecting, repeating themselves, and coming full circle. The proverbial banner raised by Kalush a year ago will be taken up by Tvorchi, reminding Europe and the world that Ukraine is still here, still fighting, and still singing.