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Eurovision 2022: Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra takes center stage in Turin, Italy

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“I’ll always come to you, by broken roads.” Ukrainian singer Oleh Psiuk once rapped these words as a tribute to his mother from him, but when his band from him, Kalush Orchestra, performs at Eurovision this week, the lyrics will resonate differently.

“And my willpower can’t be taken from me, because she gave it,” he raps in “Stefania,” rehearsing for Tuesday’s semifinals of Europe’s most popular televised music contest, as bombs rain down across his country and Ukrainians count bodies under the rubble.

With more than 5 million views, the Ukrainian song has become the most-watched music video on YouTube among entries from 40 countries, most in Europe, competing at the annual competition in the Italian city of Turin.

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“Some stuff in here was written long before the war, and it was dedicated to my mother,” Psiuk told the Associated Press. “After it all started with the war, it took on additional meaning, and many people started seeing it as their mother, Ukraine, in the meaning of the country.”

Ukrainian authorities gave the singer and his bandmates permission to travel to Italy for the contest, as the country has imposed martial law, banning most Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 from leaving because they could be called to battle. One member of the folk-rap group reportedly stayed behind to fight.

If Kalush Orchestra — which mixes hip-hop with Ukrainian folk dance — makes it to the Eurovision final on Saturday and wins, Ukraine gets the right to host the 2023 contest. The competition, first held in 1956, draws votes from the public, and while its organizers in the European Broadcasting Union have billed it as a “nonpolitical” event, it has often reflected the political dynamics of its time.

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In fact, the band replaced Ukraine’s original act, Alina Pash, earlier this year because of a probe into a visit she made in 2015 to Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014. And after the Kremlin launched its war on Ukraine, Russia was banned from this year’s contest.

In 2016, the Ukrainian entry by Crimean Tatar singer Jamala scored Ukraine’s second Eurovision win. When the contest was held the next year in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, Russia was barred from joining.

Armenia and Georgia were among the contenders to pull out in past years over tensions with other countries, while Austrian bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst’s victory in 2014 sparked debates on LGBTQ rights.

Annabelle Chapman contributed to this report.

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