He looks exhausted, pink bob screwed on his head, leaning back on a sofa, black sweatshirt, stubble on a gray complexion. Oleh Psiuk is the founder of Kalush, a favorite Ukrainian rap group of bookmakers for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. In 2019, the rapper from Kalush, a small industrial town in western Ukraine at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, posted an ad on Facebook to recruit musicians sensitive to Ukrainian folklore. He thus meets the multi-instrumentalist Ihor Didenchuk and the dancer Vlad Kurochka alias MC CarpetMan. Their first single “Shtomber Womber”, an original mix of rap, folk, pop and traditional Ukrainian songs, allowed them to sign with the prestigious New York rap label Def Jam, with whom they released two albums. For the French market, they sign with Sony. Not bad.
The group grew, enlisted two other multi-instrumentalists and renamed itself Kalush Orchestra. “We have three folklore experts in the group who have studied hundreds of these songs in college. Kalush Orchestra is a mix of old folklore forgotten for generations and contemporary rap. Nobody’s done this before,” says Oleg, an Eminem flow fan who raps about friendship as well as the coronavirus.
It was with “Stefania”, a song dedicated to Oleg’s mother, that they decided to participate in the national Eurovision Song Contest last February. The title is catchy, with its choirs and its flute tune, its slightly old school beats… They lose the local final against singer Alina Pash, then, surprised, climb to the top of the podium when she has to give in to them instead, the victim of a scandal. The information leaked on the Internet: Alina Pash would have traveled to Crimea via Russia in 2015, which has been prohibited by the Ukrainian government since the annexation of the region in 2014… In 2019, already, the singer Maruv had to abandon the competition, as she planned to shoot in Russia. “It’s not my problem, I didn’t create these rules,” Oleg just comments. Kalush Orchestra will therefore represent Ukraine at Eurovision this year. But their joy is short-lived: the decision comes days before Russia invades Ukraine.
They are no longer sure they can participate. All men of fighting age (which is their case) are prohibited from leaving the country and can be called upon to join the army. MC CarpetMan joins the Territorial Defense Forces in Kyiv. “On the third day of the war, I created a volunteer organization to help relocate people and transport medicine and food,” Oleg says. “My whole family is still in Ukraine. They have all remained where they lived before the war, and where the sirens of air alerts now sound three times a day. There are currently no safe zones in Ukraine. A few friends joined the front. Two lost their lives. Difficult in these conditions to repeat. But the group got special permission to travel.
Eurovision has always been an important event in Ukraine, but it is even more so since the war.
Eurovision is a formidable communication weapon. Since its creation in 1956, it has been the most watched program in the world, after the final of the Football World Cup. Because, contrary to what its name suggests, the annual event created by the Director General of Swiss Public Television and organized by the European Broadcasting Union is not reserved for European Union countries. Forty countries, whose regimes are sometimes controversial, participate. And if after ABBA’s victory with “Waterloo” in 1974, the competition had become a little cheesy, it became cool again in the 2000s with participants like Sébastien Tellier or drag queen Conchita Wurst. Last year, Eurovision was seen by 183 million viewers, two-thirds of whom were between 18 and 34 years old. Americans are so jealous of it that they just created their own version: The American Song Contest…
“We never thought the contest was cheesy,” says Oleg. “Eurovision has always been an important event in Ukraine, but it is even more so since the war, because everyone now realizes that we have to defend the image of our country internationally. Today, he answers us from Turin, where he is about to participate in the semi-final, with all the other members of his group, except MC CarpetMan, who preferred to continue his fight against the Russians in the east. . Their manager is also still in kyiv. He did not receive authorization to leave the territory. “Our permit is temporary, we have to return immediately the day after the competition,” recalls Oleg.
“Stefania” has become a hymn to all mothers and the motherland, and all proceeds from the song are donated to charities that work for the people of Ukraine. “I will always find my way home, even if all the roads are destroyed,” says the text. At the beginning of April, they met in Lviv to record a clip of “Stefania”, which recalls the staging of President Zelensky in his presidential palace, with mattresses and blankets on the floor… When asked about Oleg, he oddly refuses to answer, “We didn’t have that in mind, you just have to see the video, and it’s all in the video.” We insist. “True creativity can’t be described in words, all I can tell you is we made a video and that was it,” he snapped. We don’t ask him again either to try to describe what he likes so much in folk songs, or in traditional Ukrainian melodies… He looked deeply bored by the question.
Ukraine have already won Eurovision in 2004 and 2016, and are now credited with a 34% chance of winning in the final on May 14. The chances of France with the Breton group Alvan