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How Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra Turned Its Eurovision-Winning Track Into an Anti-War Anthem

"Ukrainians are now united as never before, and each of us is making every effort to defeat the enemy."

The six members of Ukrainian rap-folk band Kalush Orchestra took their win at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest as a morale-boosting show of international support for their war-ravaged country, which Russia invaded Feb. 24. “They want to destroy our culture,” band founder/lead singer Oleh Psiuk, 28, tells Billboard on Zoom through a translator. “We came to Eurovision to show everybody that our culture exists. That our music is alive.”

Kalush Orchestra’s victory on May 14 in Turin, Italy — where a Eurovision record 438 points from the public for its song “Stefania” helped beat 24 other finalists — also aided the war effort in more practical ways. The group auctioned off the crystal microphone trophy it collected in Italy and the pink bucket hat that Psiuk wore onstage, raising $900,000, which will be used to buy aerial drones for the Ukrainian military. “We are doing whatever is possible to help,” says Psiuk, speaking from Berlin two days after performing at a charity concert at Brandenburg Gate.

Kalush Orchestra Oleh Psiuk
Oleh Psiuk Sasha Maslov
Kalush Orchestra Vitalii Duzhyk
Vitalii Duzhyk Sasha Maslov

Before that Berlin show, Kalush Orchestra had returned to Lviv, where the sound of explosions has become a regular occurrence — and where Kharkiv-born photographer Sasha Maslov shot these images for Billboard.

“There is a constant feeling of stress and anxiety because there are constant air alarms, and you do not know which house will be hit by a bomb or a missile,” says Psiuk, who lives in Kalush, a city in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, from which the group took its name.

Kalush Orchestra Tymofiy Muzychuk
Tymofiy Muzychuk Sasha Maslov

A Song for Mother Ukraine

Kalush Orchestra wrote its Eurovision-winning entry last year as a tribute to Psiuk’s mother, Stefania. Following the Russian invasion, the song, which mixes traditional Ukrainian folk melodies with modern hip-hop beats and rhymes, took on symbolic relevance as a unifying message of strength and resilience for many Ukrainians, inspiring numerous videos on TikTok and Instagram. “Very quickly, the song expanded its meaning to all mothers who care for their children and protect them from the scourge of war,” says Psiuk. “The song is now in the hearts and ears of Ukrainians.” The stage design for the group’s Eurovision performance — featuring images of a mother’s tear-filled eyes — reinforced the theme of unconditional love at the heart of “Stefania,” and the group regularly performs wearing traditional Ukrainian costumes. “We take older folklore and make it cool and fashionable,” says the singer, who cites Eminem as his favorite artist. “Our goal is to make Ukrainian music popular, not only in Ukraine but all over the world.”

Kalush Orchestra Oleksandr Slobodianyk
Oleksandr Slobodianyk Sasha Maslov

Helping Others in Need

Three days after Russia invaded, Psiuk set up a volunteer organization called Ty de? (“Where are you?”) that helps displaced citizens find shelter, housing, transport and medicine. The organization has around 35 members operating in multiple cities across Ukraine. “We have a Telegram chat, and any person from Ukraine can join it, write what help he or she needs, and we will do whatever is possible,” says Psiuk. Another of Kalush Orchestra’s original members — Slavik Hnatenko, known as MC KylymMen — passed on the opportunity to perform in Turin because he was fighting for Ukraine in the volunteer forces. His bandmates stay in regular touch with him. “He is fully equipped. He’s OK,” says Psiuk, who, along with his bandmates, had to get permission from the Ukrainian government to travel to Italy for Eurovision. (Men ages 18-60 are not allowed to leave the country.) “We didn’t have an opportunity to have proper rehearsals [before the competition], so we had to rehearse in the urgent mode.”

Kalush Orchestra Oleksandr Kondratiuk
Oleksandr Kondratiuk Sasha Maslov
Kalush Orchestra Carpet Man
Carpet Man Sasha Maslov

Hopes for Peace

After returning from Turin, Kalush Orchestra was greeted at the Polish-Ukrainian border by a crowd of fans, leading to an impromptu outdoor performance of “Stefania.” Since Eurovision, the group has been leveraging its heightened profile to draw attention to the war’s humanitarian crisis and raise funds for its country. Plans are now being made for “lots of concerts and shows” later this year, says Psiuk, although the group’s priority is to do all it can to help end the current conflict. Despite everything Ukraine has endured the past four months, Psiuk says he is optimistic that there are brighter days ahead. “If a person is deprived of hope, then how to live on?” he asks. “Faith and hope for our speedy victory is what moves us closer to this. Ukrainians are now united as never before, and each of us is making every effort to defeat the enemy. We believe that this will happen very soon, and we will all quickly rebuild our country together.”

Kalush Orchestra
From left: Vitalii Duzhyk, Tymofiy Muzychuk, Oleksandr Slobodianyk, Oleh Psiuk, Carpet Man and Oleksandr Kondratiuk of Kalush Orchestra photographed May 25 in Lviv, Ukraine. Sasha Maslov

This story originally appeared in the June 25, 2022, issue of Billboard.