A Eurovision win has turned Kalush Orchestra into Ukraine’s hip-hop ambassadors

Perhaps it was inevitable that Kalush Orchestra would win the Eurovision Song Contest in 2022.

Not only did the group arrive with “Stefania,” a riotous blend of hip-hop and folk, the folk component stemmed from the traditional music of Ukraine just as Russia’s February invasion put Ukrainian culture under threat. That proved to be a powerful motivator for the group.

“There was this pressure on us, that Ukraine has to win and it was so important and everybody expected us to win,” frontman Oleh Psiuk says through a translator on a video call, ahead of the band’s show at Sonia in Cambridge Friday. “So, we were just going for the win from the very beginning. Our minds were set on it.

When the six band members learned they had won at the finals in Turin, Italy, they leapt around, wrapped themselves in yellow and blue Ukrainian flags, and exchanged hugs. Their joy and relief had a cathartic edge to it that was almost palpable.

“It’s literally three minutes on stage of performing and about six months of work, preparing and doing everything around it for those three minutes,” Psiuk says, wearing the pink bucket hat that has become his trademark. “And then when we won, it was honestly mostly emotions, like endorphins, you know, just this thrill and excitement.”

It was the second time that Ukraine had won the contest, though Kalush Orchestra’s victory had a different resonance than when Jamala took home the trophy in 2016.

“Whether it’s music or sports or any kind of win that impacts people’s spirits, it’s very important,” Psiuk says.

Going on tour fulfills a similar role, with Kalush Orchestra serving as a sort of goodwill ambassador for Ukraine. In some respects, it’s a minor miracle that the group is on the road at all. Obtaining US visas for artists from overseas is always complicated, says Igor Golubchik, the band’s North American promoter (and translator). Because all six members are of military age, Kalush Orchestra must also get permission from the government of Ukraine to leave the country.

“It takes time,” Golubchik says. “It’s a lot of paperwork. It’s not easy, but we’ve been managing it.”

The band members don’t take it for granted that they’re touring Europe and North America rather than, say, staffing an artillery position in the Donbas region.

“We all have somebody who’s actually fighting at the front, so whenever there’s really bad news that somebody passed away, it’s obviously taking its toll on us psychologically,” Psiuk says. “It’s tough to do entertainment while there’s war going on and such pressure.”

The group is trying to do its part from afar for the war effort. Kalush Orchestra auctioned off its Eurovision trophy for $900,000 and donated the proceeds to the war effort. Their concerts are also an opportunity to solicit donations for humanitarian relief in Ukraine. Overall, the band says it has collected more than $1.6 million.

Psiuk, 29, began rapping as a teenager after discovering Eminem, and he cites West Coast rappers including Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg as influences. Psiuk started Kalush Orchestra in 2021 as an offshoot of his more rap-centric group Kalush, named for his hometown in western Ukraine.

“Initially, we had a hip-hop group, and then we decided to combine it with some of the folk elements, and it kind of worked really well, and people seem to enjoy it,” Psiuk says. “There’s really no other group that does it that way.”

Folk music wasn’t part of Psiuk’s upbringing, but some of his bandmates had deeper roots. For example, the singer and multi-instrumentalist Tymofii Muzychuk was steeped in traditional music thanks to his grandparents, who were musicians. Muzychuk played in folk groups before teaming with Psiuk in Kalush Orchestra.

“Half of our group are rappers, and there wasn’t much folklore in our lives prior,” Psiuk says. “But the other half of our group, they sort of grew up with this folklore in their life. And obviously now it’s extremely important to promote Ukrainian folklore and culture worldwide.”

When they’re not performing concerts, Kalush Orchestra spends time recording new music in a studio in Gdansk, Poland. Their efforts so far have resulted in 11 singles since 2021, including “Stefania,” which reached the charts in several European countries. Mostly, though, the band is on tour. Psiuk says the group’s concerts are evenly split between hip-hop and folk, though Kalush Orchestra plans to close out 2023 with a string of “experimental” shows in Europe that tilt the balance.

“In that particular formation, it’s like 80 percent folk and 20 percent hip-hop,” Psiuk says. “We think it will still work, and that people will respond well to it. We’ll see how it goes. And if people like it, it’ll work. If not, that’s fine, too.”

Resourse: Bostone Globe