The folk rap group are a firm favorite in the betting markets and their presence at the tournament has captured the imagination of fans from all participating countries.
“As we speak, our country and our culture are under threat. But we want to show that we are alive, Ukrainian culture is alive, it’s unique, diverse and beautiful,” the band’s frontman Oleg Psyuk told CNN.
“It’s our way of serving our country,” he said.
At first glance, the group of six seems to fit in comfortably with dozens of their more eccentric Eurovision brethren.
Most members wear elaborate National costume, with rapper Psyuk also wearing a pink bucket hat. One member is swathed in patterned embroidery so only his mouth is visible, while the group’s double bass player comes dressed as a ball of yarn.
But getting the Kalush Orchestra on stage at the Eurovision Song Contest took some effort, and their journey is intertwined with the war at home.
The band initially took second place in Ukraine’s national selection competition, but were boosted after it was revealed that the winner had previously traveled to Russia-annexed Crimea. They were unveiled upon entering the country on February 22, two days before Russian troops invaded Ukraine.
“All members of the group are somehow involved in defending the country,” Psyuk told CNN via email.
One member, Vlad Kurochka, joined the Territorial Defense and is fighting on the front line, meaning a late replacement was needed for the competition. Psyuk, meanwhile, volunteers to find him internally displaced Ukrainians shelter and organizes the transport of food and medicine.
The background of the conflict complicated the preparations for Eurovision. The group had to rehearse virtually before finally being able to meet in Lemberg after weeks of war.
And her song took on a new meaning. “Stefania”, sung in Ukrainian, is a tribute to Psyuk’s mother, who still lives in the western town of Kalush, from which the band takes its name. “Some days rockets fly over people’s houses and it’s like a lottery — no one knows where they’re going to hit,” Psyuk told CNN.
Organizers banned Russia from the competition in February, 24 hours after an initial, widely criticized decision to allow Russia to participate. The European Broadcasting Union concluded that the country’s presence “would bring the competition into disrepute”.
Belarus, which backed Moscow’s invasion, had already been suspended over the country’s crackdown on media freedom.
Kalush, meanwhile, sailed through Tuesday’s semifinals, drawing wild cheers from the crowd as they took the stage. Eurovision is notoriously difficult to predict with its scoring system based on both jury verdicts and public votes from dozens of countries, but Kalush looks like a safe bet to win this year’s crown.
A Ukrainian victory would mean that the country would have the right to host the competition next year – but it is far from certain that such an event would be possible in Ukraine next May.
However, Psyuk is optimistic. “We believe in our song … it’s become a song about the motherland,” he said.
“If it turns out that we win, Eurovision 2023 will take place in Ukraine. In a new, integral Ukraine… a rebuilt, prosperous, happy country.”
The Kalush Orchestra joins a typically motley group of national entrants in this year’s competition, and while the clear favorites to win, a number of other performers have managed to get Europe talking ahead of time.
Subwoolfer, Norway’s enigmatic electro duo, also caused a stir with their entry “Give That Wolf a Banana”.
The pair claim they formed on the moon 4.5 billion years ago and will never take off their yellow dog masks. Most resembling a TikTok-ified Daft Punk, they had hired legendary French couple David Lynch as artistic director and attended the children’s parties.
Less “out there” are entries from Sweden, Poland and Greece – all three have brought ballads to the table that will surely interest the national juries.
And here are some words this veteran Eurovision reporter never thought possible: The UK could win this year.
That’s right — the nation that’s sent the remnants of Bonnie Tyler and Engelbert Humperdinck into competition with Europe’s rising stars for the last decade has grudgingly accepted that modernity isn’t just a passing fad, and has embraced a TikTok Sensation is developing a play for the under 65s in Europe.
Sam Ryder’s Space Man is an unusually strong British entry, inspired by Ziggy Stardust-era Elton John and Bowie, and some bookies only give Ukraine better odds.
But the track draws heavily on the remarkable vocal acrobatics that helped Ryder go viral in the early days of the pandemic – so he can’t afford a night off if he wants to break Britain’s 25-year Eurovision bane.
The best (and worst) of each other
Italy hopes to host a show on Saturday night to celebrate the first post-Covid Eurovision in front of a packed audience. The 2020 edition was canceled and last year’s took place with crowd restrictions.
This contest marked the release of two years of repressed weirdness, and the tone of this contest is a bit more traditional by comparison. But this is still Eurovision, and it’s still weird – so casual viewers who tune in solely to shake their heads won’t be disappointed.
Already eliminated are Latvia, whose environmentally conscious anthem “Eat Your Salad” began with the line “I don’t eat meat, I eat veggies and p*ssy”. The organizers unsurprisingly asked her to skip the feline references, brushing away the song’s only interesting feature.
Serbia’s Konstrakta starts her In Corpore Sano post with the question that keeps us all up at night: “What could be the secret of Meghan Markle’s healthy hair?” Then she kind of…continues on with this topic. “What could it be?” Konstrakta sings in her mother tongue. “I think it’s all about the deep hydration.”
Last year, the landlocked micronation of San Marino inexplicably incorporated Flo Rida into their song, then forced the amused rapper to sit and watch as the people of Europe, one by one, shrugged at his dwindling star power and toppled the country to a quarter from the bottom break up.
This year, Achille Lauro – a man who takes his stage name from a famously hijacked cruise ship – takes on the mantle of the smallest country in the competition. With a tattooed, androgynous aesthetic and lyrics that compare his heart to a sex toy, Lauro is likely Eurovision 2022’s bad boy. (Though he still has a long way to go to beat last year’s winners, who ended up dated Use of cocaine were cleared to air after a viral video that sparked an investigation by organizers.)
Other lengthy recordings worth your time include Stefan, Estonia’s answer to Johnny Cash. He’s hyped the Western theme in his music video, and while his Eastwood credentials go about as far as allowing him to wear a poncho and stare somberly into the distance, his throaty vocals and catchy chorus might unnerve front-runners.
And then there’s Party Crasher Australia. Originally invited in 2015 to celebrate the show’s 60th anniversary, Australia keeps rocking out each year, wine in hand, laughing awkwardly at Europe’s inside jokes and hoping to secure a win for the hardcore fans tuned into wake up early in the morning to watch the show at home.
To be fair to Australia, they’re giving their all – and this year’s competitor Sheldon Riley’s aptly named ‘Not the Same’ looks set to have a respectable result.
And Eurovision’s popularity in the southern hemisphere is a testament to its growing strength, even in its seventh decade.
Despite all its curiosities, Eurovision has a special place in the cultural calendar. But a win would be of unique significance for the Kalush Orchestra and it’s hard to imagine a more popular winner in the tournament’s history.
“For us, winning would mean an appreciation of Ukrainian music, its uniqueness and beauty,” Psyuk told CNN. “The win would also lift the spirits of the Ukrainians, who haven’t had a break (from) joy for more than two months.”
Eurovision airs Saturday at 9 p.m. local time (3 p.m. ET) and is available to US viewers on Peacock.
CNN’s Xiaofei Xu contributed to the coverage.