By PAOLO SANTALUCIA and COLLEEN BARRY
TURIN, Italy (AP) — Ukrainian band, Kalush Orchestra, made an impassioned plea to free people still trapped in a besieged steel mill in a strategic Ukrainian port city on Saturday night after performing in the final of the Eurovision Song Contest, where bookmakers tip them to win.
“I ask all of you, please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Avostal, right now,” the band’s front man, Oleh Psiuk, said, to the live crowd of some 7,500, many of whom gave a standing ovation, and global television audience of millions.
The plea to free the remaining Ukrainian fighters trapped beneath the sprawling Avostal plant by Russians served as a somber reminder that the hugely popular and at times flamboyant Eurovision song contest was being played out against the backdrop of a war on Europe’s eastern flank.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave signs that he was watching from Kyiv, and rooting for Ukrainian band.
“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 cheer for ours. Glory be to Ukraine!”
Kalush Orchestra was among 25 bands performing in the Eurovision Song Contest final front of a live audience in the industrial northern city of Turin, while millions more watched on television or via streaming around the world.
The Ukrainian band was heavily tipped to win by bookmakers, who are giving 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 the oddsmakers’ and sentimental favorite, fans from Spain, Britain and elsewhere entering the PalaOlimpico venue from throughout Europe were rooting for their own country to win.
Still, Ukrainian music fan Iryna Lasiy said she felt global support for her country in the war and “not only for the music.”
Russia was excluded this year after its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, a move organizers said was meant to keep politics out of the contest that promotes diversity and friendship among nations.
Ukraine’s song, “Stefania,’’ was written as a tribute to the frontman’s mother, but has transformed since the war into an anthem to the beleaguered nation, as lyrics take on new meaning. “I’ll always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed,” Kalush Orchestra frontman Oleh Psiuk wrote.
The six-member, all-male band received special permission to leave the country to represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture at the music contest. 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 contest is seen as giving the nation another platform to garner international support.
“The whole country is rising, everyone in the world supports us. This is extremely nice,″ 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 need to talk,″ said Alexandra Konovalova, a 23-year-old make-up artist in Kharkiv. “Any competitions are important now, because of them more people learn about what is happening now.”
Anastasia Khardikova, a 24-year-old Ukrainian living in Sweden, said she intends to vote for Kalush Orchestra, and is persuading her friends abroad to do the same.
The winner is chosen in equal parts by panels of music experts in each competing nation and votes by the viewing public — leaving room for an upset. Britain’s Sam Ryder and Sweden’s Cornelia Jakobs are each given a 10% shot while the Italian duo of 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 shot 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 genderless costume code.
Twenty bands were chosen in two semifinals this week, and were competing along with the Big Five of Italy, Britain, France, Germany and Spain, which have permanent berths due to their financial support of the contest.
Barry reported from Milan. Vasilisa Stepanenko contributed from Kharkiv, Ukraine.