A Ukrainian group pleads for Mariupol at Eurovision

TURIN, Italy — Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra issued an impassioned plea on Saturday night for the release of those still trapped in a beleaguered steelworks in a strategic Ukrainian port city after competing in the Eurovision Song Contest final, where bookmakers advised to win.

The call to free the remaining Ukrainian fighters trapped under the sprawling Azovstal factory by the Russians served as a grim reminder that the hugely popular and sometimes flamboyant Eurovision song contest was being played against the backdrop of a war on the eastern flank from Europe.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave signs that he was watching from Kyiv and supporting the Ukrainian group.

“Indeed, this is not a war, but nevertheless, for us today, any victory is very important,” Zelenskyy said, according to a presidential statement. “So let’s applaud ours. Glory to Ukraine!”

Kalush Orchestra were among 25 bands to perform in the Eurovision Song Contest final in front of a live audience in the northern industrial city of Turin, while millions of others watched on television or via streaming worldwide.

The Ukrainian group have been strongly tipped to win by bookmakers, who give the group that mixes traditional Ukrainian rhythms, costumes and dance moves with contemporary hip hop a 60% chance of winning.

Despite Ukraine’s position as a betting and sentimental favorite, fans from Spain, Britain and elsewhere entering the PalaOlimpico site from across Europe were looking for their own country to win.

Still, Ukrainian music fan Iryna Lasiy said she felt global support for her country during the war and “not just for the music”.

Russia was excluded this year after its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

The Ukrainian song “Stefania” was written as a tribute to the singer’s mother, but since the war has evolved into a hymn to the beleaguered nation as the lyrics take on new meaning. “I will always find my way back, even if all the roads are destroyed,” wrote Kalush Orchestra leader Oleh Psiuk.

The all-male group, consisting of six members, received special permission to leave the country to represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture in the music competition. One of the original members stayed to fight, and the others plan to return as soon as the contest is over.

Back in Ukraine, in the battered northeastern city of Kharkiv, Kalush Orchestra’s participation in the competition is seen as giving the nation another platform to garner international support.

“The whole country is rising up, everyone in the world is supporting us. It’s extremely pleasant,” said Julia Vashenko, a 29-year-old teacher.

“I believe that wherever there is Ukraine now and there is an opportunity to talk about the war, we have to talk,” said Alexandra Konovalova, a 23-year-old make-up artist in Kharkiv. “All competitions are important now, thanks to them more people learn what is happening now.”

Anastasia Khardikova, a 24-year-old Ukrainian living in Sweden, said she intends to vote for the Kalush Orchestra and is persuading her friends abroad to do the same.

The winner is chosen equally by panels of music experts in each competing country and voted on by the public, leaving room for surprise. Britain’s Sam Ryder and Sweden’s Cornelia Jakobs each have a 10% chance of winning while Italian duo Mahmood & Blanco have a 6% chance of winning.

The winner takes home a glass microphone trophy and a potential career boost.

The event was hosted by Italy after local rock band Maneskin won last year in Rotterdam. The victory propelled the Rome-based band to international fame, opening for the Rolling Stones and appearing on Saturday Night Live and numerous magazine covers in their typically sexless costume code.

Twenty groups were chosen in two semi-finals this week and competed against the Big Five of Italy, Britain, France, Germany and Spain, who have permanent places due to their support funding for the competition.

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Barry reported from Milan. Vasilisa Stepanenko contributed from Kharkiv, Ukraine.

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