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The Eurovision Song Contest As A Martial Art

With the war on the continent, Eurovision is more than flamboyant costumes and corny tunes.

Words: Giovanna Di Mauro
Pictures: 9parusnikov

Inspired by the Italian Festival of Sanremo, the Eurovision Song Contest was created in 1956, after World War II, to bring European countries together. Over the years, non-European countries, such as Australia and Israel, have also participated in the contest.

A lot has been said about Ukraine’s participation in Eurovision and all the controversies that this participation generated over time. Last year, Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine won the contest with the rap song “Stefania.” The song scored 631 points, the second-highest point total in Eurovision history. The Ukrainian group received points from Poland, Moldova, Latvia, Romania, and Lithuania, all countries similarly worried about a possible Russian invasion.

Stefania” was the first rap song to win the contest. The use of rap — historically a form of protest — and the singers’ use of the Ukrainian language gave the song a strong and symbolic meaning, contradicting the supposed apolitical stance of Eurovision.

The country winning the contest is supposed to host Eurovision the following year. However, for safety and security reasons, the UK hosted Eurovision 2023 in Liverpool on behalf of Ukraine. This year, for the first time, American viewers could vote in the competition.

The war in Ukraine has transformed the way singers and audiences perceive the contest.

In this context, Eurovision has become an even more significant platform of not only musical but also political confrontation. In their songs, singers put forward symbols that represent their country’s national identity, such as folkloric embroideries and musical instruments (this is particularly the case for Moldova and Ukraine); they sometimes refer to historical events (in 2016 Ukraine presented a song on the 1944 Russian deportation of Crimean Tatars); voters (who cannot vote for their own country) often give their vote to those countries whose identity or history is close to theirs. The 2022 ban of Russia from the contest and the coverage by Russian media of Eurovision 2023 defined as Bacchanalia for Western perverts represent examples of the political nature of the event. The invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the war in Ukraine transformed the contest, making it into a sort of cultural battlefield or even a form of martial art.

Moldova’s Participation In Eurovision

Because of its proximity to the Ukrainian war, Moldova is suddenly of interest to political circles in Europe, the US, and beyond. Moldova is a country situated between Romania and Ukraine, with a population of more than 3 million people, and it is considered the poorest country in Europe. Because of the difficulty that some people have in locating it, Pavel Braila, a Moldovan artist, once made a poster of a map without Moldova on it and attached a sticker on it saying  Probably Moldova doesn’t exist.

Zdob şi Zdub

Moldova has participated in Eurovision 18 times with a successful debut in 2005 of the folk-rock band Zdob şi Zdub who finished sixth that year. The name Zdob şi Zdub stands for the sound of a drum beat. Their songs, sung in Russian, Romanian, English, Romani, and Ukrainian, mix elements of rock and folk, traditional Romanian music, hip-hop, and hardcore punk. When the band started their career, the Russian language was still the hegemonic language in Moldovan rock music. In fact, in 1996, they produced their first album containing solely songs in Russian with only the title in Romanian. Only one song was recorded in Romanian and the title was “Hardcore Moldovenesc” (Moldovan hardcore).

Later, the band started to write in Romanian and use elements of the Moldovan ethnic tradition. Roman Iagupov, the singer of the group, often performs wearing the catrinţă (an item of clothing decorated with national embroideries serving as a skirt or apron) and the cuşmă (the traditional Moldovan wool hat). The use of these folkloric elements reinforced the message of a national identity in need of strengthening, especially for a “young country” like Moldova.

The band’s 2005 participation in Eurovision was significant because Moldova has always imported rather than exported music and cultural styles. For the first time, a Moldovan group was representing the country in an international competition. The song presented in 2005 was “Boonika Bate Toba” (Grandma beats the drum). It is interesting to note that the Romanian word ‘grandma’ should be written “bunica,” but the group chose the English spelling of the Romanian word, substituting the u with oo and the c with a k.

In 2022, Zdob şi Zdub represented Moldova at the contest with a song called “Trenuleţul” (Little Train). The song talked about a train leaving Chișinău, Moldova, and going to Bucharest, Romania. It was initially released to celebrate the reopening of the railway connection between Chișinău and Bucharest. However, after presenting it at Eurovision and against the background of the war in Ukraine that had just started, many saw in the content an innuendo of a possible reunification with Romania, a controversial topic in Moldova. Interpretations of the Eurovision songs abound and reflect the context and current events that surround the contest.

Pasha Parfeni 

Eurovision 2023 was Pasha Parfeni’s second participation in the contest as a solo singer. His song was called “Soarele şi Luna” (Sun and Moon). Parfeni’s performance was embedded with mystic symbols taken from pagan cultures. Compared to Zdob şi Zdub’s previous performances displaying ostentatious symbols of Moldovan folklore, Parfeni approached the contest from a different angle, taking inspiration from Moldovan folktales. The use of horns in his performance had a bucolic characteristic and could also be seen as a reference to the auroch, the cattle found on the Moldovan flag. Drums and the flute are also rural elements present in Moldovan and Romanian folkloric tales.

At the end of his performance, Parfeni thanked Ukraine: “Ukraine, thank you for keeping peace in Moldova. Moldova is with you. We love you!” Parfeni is not new to these kinds of openly political statements. In 2021, during a performance in Chișinău, he took off his shirt and showed the message #NoPlaha. The singer was referring to Vladimir Plahotniuc, a Moldovan oligarch, also known as Plaha. This gesture took a toll on his musical career, as all his concert venues canceled his subsequent performances.

A Mirror Of The Times

Eurovision serves as a sort of dojo — a martial arts arena — for Europe, where national identities are built, cultural alliances are forged and broken, and conflicts simmer, all through the subtle cues of costumes, choreography, and song. Eurovision singers adapt their messages to reflect the times. And it seems that the war in Ukraine has transformed the way singers and audiences perceive the contest. This change challenges the contest’s “apolitical” official rule. Clearly, music can have a strong political mission and express grievances and solidarity across space and time, beyond linguistic differences and geographical contexts. No matter how Eurovision will continue to evolve in the coming years, it is likely that this festival will remain a mirror of major international political events.

Giovanna Di Mauro

Giovanna Di Mauro is a Lecturer at King's College London (Defence Studies Department, School of Security Studies). She holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of St Andrews, UK. You can find her on LinkedIn here.

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