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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Mamo Mia!
The mad musical alternative universe that is Eurovision has arrived in Moscow. Machiavelli would be a toe-tappin’ lovin’ it. Ding-ding-a-dong! Here’s a challenge: how many Eurovision song hits can you hum the tune to? Half a dozen? A couple? Err … one? Whatever your score, this month offers the unforgettable opportunity to sing-a-long and sha-la-la; live and with the ‘Stars’ – to the latest batch of melodies as everybody’s favorite festival of musical bubblegum hits the capital.
Text by Peter Ellis

A ringside spot is the hottest ticket in town to this, the fifty fourth rendition of the Eurovision Song Contest, when sentimental schmaltz collides with Russian realpolitik. Hundreds trudged through sleet and sludge as box offices opened, eager to get the hands on seats costing from 800 rubles ($23) to 30,000 ($865), or a ‘golden ticket’ priced at a cool 350,000 rubles ($10,400). With black market prices double, triple, quadruple or more, the ticket touts must be singing all the way to the bank.

Surprisingly, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is said to have been reluctant to host the show and there were doubts whether the venue – the Olimpiysky Indoor Arena – was up to the job. But local music lovers were relieved when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stepped in to confi rm that Moscow would hold the party, providing funds to the tune of 1 billion rubles ($36.5 million) to make sure it goes with a swing. The opening ceremony coincides with National Victory Day (May 9) and the closing bash is being held a stone’s throw away from Putin’s office.

Russia gets this honor because of Dima Bilan’s win at last year’s Eurovision. At the time, unsporting sorts cried foul and complained of block, or rather eastern block voting, as he received maximum scores from six Eastern European countries as well as Israel, with its large Russian-speaking population.

Singing and political shenanigans go hand-in-hand at Eurovision. Georgia’s entry was banned by Eurovision bosses because its title – We Don’t Wanna Put In – was seen as a dig at Russia’s Prime Minister (Put In; Putin … get it?). Despite the bar on the Georgian group, Stephane and 3G, claim it’s a big hit in Moscow’s nightclubs. Sweden felt the Kremlin’s wrath when the country’s Eurovision TV final included an irreverent skit on Russia. It’s performers were described as “lunatics whose Russophobia should place them in an asylum rather than on … stage,” by a Russian Embassy official who added that he was “fairly certain it will reduce the number of votes [given] to the Swedish singer.”

Russia’s entry this year was a surprise. Anastasiya Prykhodko’s song, Mamo, was first intended to represent Ukraine (mamo means mother in Ukrainian). Some think it was rejected because it contained words in Russian as well as Ukrainian: the idea of making Russian an official language in Ukraine sticks in the throats of those in power, though a quarter of the country uses it. She then switched allegiances and came in at the last minute to sing for Russia.

Anastasia Prikhodko (Russia)

Yohanna (Iceland)

Jane Ewen (UK)

This caused a cat fight. There were accusations of nepotism; insults were exchanged on the pages of Russia’s tabloid press. Yet, most ordinary Russians are just plain bemused at the choice. Blogs, like those of Kremlin expert Carl Thomson, suggest that the song was shooed in as a way of strengthening the Kremlin’s influence beyond Russia’s borders. “Eurovision is seen as an opportunity to try and make a political statement. Large areas in the east [of Ukraine] have always been culturally closer to Moscow than to Kiev,” he writes.

With an estimated world audience of over 100 million there’s a lot of potential to influence. For songsmiths, the competition throws up a lot of dilemmas: do you produce something anonymously international, or try to conjure up the spirit of your country? Should the song be in English or in the mother tongue? Do you go for a sexy image or something more wholesome?

For many this year, the answer is ‘to be cool’: spandex and sequins have been eschewed in favor of an international, soulful and sexy mood; a string quartet, or at least a Cello or grand piano, is de rigueur. French singer, Patricia Kaas – already an established star – sings her heart-searching chanson ‘Et S’Il Fallait Le Faire’ with aplomb.

For others, the electric guitar is the instrument of choice. Switzerland’s Lovebugs reach ‘The Highest Heights’ with guitar, bass and drum, and Ireland’s sexy all-girl punk band has produced an energetic, catchy tune. Macedonia has gone heavy metal, complete with leather, long hair and attitude. Then there’s the ethnic option. Moldova’s promo video, sung impressively by Nelly Ciobanu, looks like it was sponsored by the Moldovan Tourist Board, while the Czech Republic’s Aven Romale sings an up-beat take on traditional gypsy violin melodies wearing a superman costume, mixing styles and languages in a high-energy musical schizophrenia. Azerbaijan has also combined traditional and modern in an appealing, racy tune.

The jury’s out on who will be this year’s Eurovision clown. Romale is certainly in the running but he’s facing stiff competition from Serbia’s Marko Kon, with his cotton wool hair, croaky voice and crowd pleasing stage presence. Whereas Belgium’s choice of Copycat, an Elvis impersonator, is just plain odd: you begin to doubt if the nation is taking the competition entirely seriously.

As for the competition’s social commentators, the author of Latvia’s song, Probka (traffic jam), sung in Russian by Intars Busulis, says: “traffic jams are a very painful but common event for every citizen of Moscow. And in a philosophical sense everyone will understand the song: the economy has stalled, we’re deep in crisis, we cannot move, we’re in a social jam.” Ukraine’s Svetlana Loboda has jumped on the topical bandwagon. Her song is entitled Be My Valentine (Anti-Crisis Girl), though it’s difficult to see how lines like ‘we’re gonna do the bom bom, ain’t that amazing – bom’ can give any insight to the current world economic downturn.


Intars Busulis (Latvia)

Alexander Rybak (Norway)

Sakis Rouvas (Greece)

British bookmakers are putting their money on Norway to win. You can see why: starry-eyed Alexander Rybak, singing Fairytale with gusto while accompanying himself on the violin, evokes the innocence of early Eurovision contests. He’s sure to be a hit with the mums. As for Eurovision’s wooden spoon – ‘nul point’ – odds say it will be Germany with their song Mis s Kiss Kiss Bang.

Eurovision is pop history. Abba made it after their winning song, Waterloo, in 1974. It also catapulted Michael Flatley and Irish dancing center stage when Riverdance was performed during an interval at the 1994 contest in Dublin. But times are changing. Terry Wogan, the popular British commentator who has 35 Eurovision contests under his belt, has given up on it because he feels the competition has lost its way. “It has always been an event, but at least the voting used to be about the songs. Now it’s really about national prejudices,” he said.

Yet Eurovision has always been more than music. Music’s easily trumped by politics and parties and the chance for the ‘beautiful people’ to strut their stuff . May in Moscow will be humming, with the bars, restaurants and hotels doing a brisk trade. They are well prepared: “we’ve stocked up on champagne and condoms,” one hotel concierge confi ded. Boom-bang-a-bang, spread the love!

The two semi-finals of Eurovision 2009 will be performed on the 12th and 14th of May at the Olimpiysky Indoor Arena, with the final on the 16th. Full details are available at

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