Ukraine’s Eurovision winners have grabbed a prized slot at Glastonbury but until Tuesday their appearance was anything but certain.
Four weeks ago, long after the festival’s line-up was announced, Kalush Orchestra had not even been booked.
However, i can now reveal, the band’s appearance was made possible by a mixture of luck, determination and the intervention of a PR expert immortalised by comedian Jennifer Saunders as Edina in Absolutely Fabulous.
It started with a call to me after I returned home from reporting in Ukraine at the start of the Russian invasion. Kate, who is the best fixer any war reporter could wish for, rang to ask for a favour for her friend Maiia.
Maiia had just arrived in London after escaping the worst of the war in the east of the country, but she needed somewhere to live and I was able to arrange for her to stay with my brother in London.
Once we realised Maiia was doing the public relations for the band, it became obvious they ought to go to Glastonbury. The question was how. Lynne Franks – who is indeed Absolutely Fabulous – was the answer.
Lynne got to work and after several days of being told there were no slots available, Chris Tofu, the epic DJ who runs the festivals’ Shangri-La area of the festival, found one on the Truth stage.
Only at this point, none of the band had visas to come to the UK and time was running short.
But with a little patience, several frantic phone calls from Maiia and the band’s new record label Sony, plus a willingness from the Home Office to see them perform in the UK, the all-clear was finally given, and on Tuesday, just three days before they were due to perform, the visas arrived.
The band is delighted, not to mention a touch overwhelmed, at the chance of playing one of the world’s biggest music festivals.
“This is a very cool opportunity for us to declare Ukraine even louder, to draw even more attention to the war, and to find even more support from Europeans,” the band’s leader and rapper Oleh Psiuk told i.
There is a constant theme in Psiuk’s answers. He, and his bandmates, have become unlikely ambassadors for their country and, with the blessing of President Volodymyr Zelensky, they are doing what they can to keep the war at the front of the minds of the people of Europe.
The band’s director Mykola Kucheryavy, does, however, allow himself to say what Glastonbury means to his charges.
“Of course, they have heard much about Glastonbury, and even dreamed that one day the Kalush Orchestra would perform there,” he says. Tick that one off the bucket list.
Victory at Eurovision was not about lifting a trophy – the band auctioned it off to raise money for the war effort at home. For Psiuk, it was all about somehow turning a song contest victory into support for a victory against Russia in Ukraine.
“After winning Eurovision, my team and I immediately set out to find ways to transform this victory in favour of war,” he says. “That’s how the idea came to auction off the trophy to raise money for the Ukrainian army.
“Now, travelling in Europe, we have a lot of attention, and this is exactly what we need. Because every article, every mention, every photo is a penny to help Ukraine in the war against the Russians.”
Does this almost quasi-diplomatic role sit easy on the band’s shoulders?
“It is very important to represent your country, especially now”, he says, adding that there is no choice for Ukraine, or the rest of the world, other than a Ukrainian victory against Putin.
So hopeful is Psiuk of winning the war that he’s not interested in talk of next year’s Eurovision having to take place in the UK.
“This is an opportunity to reiterate that Eurovision 2023 will be in Ukraine, as well as to call on people around the world to help us end the war as soon as possible,” he said.
“It can’t be otherwise. All Ukrainians are doing their best to speed it up. We hope that the world community will also celebrate it with us soon.”
It seems odd to ask about his music when there are far more pressing matters on his and his nation’s mind, but he’s happy to give a hint of what the Glastonbury crowd can expect from the band when the party really gets going in the early hours of Saturday morning.
“Ukrainian rap with ethnic motives will finally be heard in the UK,” he says. “We hope that we will touch the strings of the soul of every Englishman. And let’s start a new annual tradition of performances by top Ukrainian bands at Glastonbury.
“The whole world should hear and know about Ukrainian music. Especially now, when we see that our ‘Stefania’ is liked by foreigners, they sing our song in Ukrainian, it adds to the belief that soon there will be more Ukrainian songs on the world market.”
While Psiuk and the band will be mingling among many music world A-listers such as Sir Paul McCartney, Billie Eilish, Robert Plant, Noel Gallagher, Elbow and Diana Ross, they will not be seeking selfies from them. Indeed, it’ll probably end up being the other way round.
“We look forward to meeting our Ukrainian colleagues Jamala, Go_A and DakhaBrakha,” says Psiuk of his compatriots also performing this weekend.
As for Lynne and Maiia, they have been rewarded for their persistence in getting Kalush to Glastonbury with a pair of tickets. “It was one of my biggest tests for years,” says Lynne. “I am thrilled we pulled it off.”