TURIN, Italy: Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Sunday with an infectious hip-hop folk melody, as the embattled nation rides a wave of public support across Europe.
Kalush Orchestra beat out 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania,” a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms from an energetic, breakdancing band.
“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal right now,” frontman Oleh Psiuk said in English from the stage, referring to the port city’s underground steelworks where Ukrainian soldiers are surrounded by Russian forces.
Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognizable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.
“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.
Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain with the reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.
Ukraine beat out a host of over-the-top acts at the kitschy, quirky annual musical event, including Norway’s Subwoolfer, which sang about bananas while dressed in yellow wolf masks, and Serbia’s Konstrakta, who questioned national health care while meticulously scrubbing her hands onstage.
“Only at Eurovision do people celebrate bananas, heartbreaks and wash their hands in one and the same show,” Swedish fan Martina Fries told AFP Saturday ahead of the finale.
“Eurovision is a way to show that different countries can celebrate peacefully together.”
The joy of Eurovision is in its camp and theatrics, although the nearly three-month war in Ukraine hung heavily over festivities.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organizes the event, banned Russia on February 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbor.
“Stefania,” written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war, mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music played on obscure flute-like instruments with an invigorating hip-hop beat. The band donned richly embroidered ethnic garb to perform their act.
Nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” have taken on outsized meaning as millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by war.
President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the group for topping the contest.
“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” he wrote on Facebook.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom,” while European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine.”
Kalush Orchestra received special authorization from Ukraine’s government to attend Eurovision, since men of fighting age are prohibited from leaving the country, but that permit expires in two days.
Psiuk said he wasn’t exactly sure what awaited the band as war rages back home.
“Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.”
Other contenders at Eurovision included Sweden’s break-up belt “Hold Me Closer” from Cornelia Jakobs, Greece’s somber “Die Together” by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord, and “Brividi” (Shivers), a gay-themed duet from Italy’s Mahmood and Blanco.
Italy won the competition last year with “Zitti e Buoni” (Shut up and Behave) from high-octane glam rockers Maneskin, who performed their new single “Supermodel” during Saturday night’s finale.
Eurovision’s winner is chosen by a cast of music industry professionals — and members of the public — from each country, with votes for one’s home nation not allowed.
After a quarter-century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain had hoped to have a winner in “Space Man” and its high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Ryder.
Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.
Eurovision is a hit among fans not only for the music, but for the looks on display and this year was no exception. Lithuania’s Monika Liu generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant “Sentimentai.”
Meanwhile, Sheldon Riley of Australia — one of Eurovision’s few non-European entries — sang his self-affirmation ballad “Not the Same” through a sparkling face veil laden with crystals.
And since no Eurovision is complete without a smattering of gyrating and undulating bodies onstage, Spain’s Chanel came to the rescue with her energetic dancing and memorable “booty hypnotic” refrain.