In Ella Fitzgerald's shadow

Eurovision hoopla fails to reach Ukraine's war-torn east

The buzz surrounding the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev has barely created a ripple in eastern Ukraine after being banned by Russian TV -- the only broadcasters aired in the war-ravaged region.

Eurovision fans in wartorn eastern Ukraine will have to turn to the web for their annual dose of glitz
Eurovision fans in wartorn eastern Ukraine will have to turn to the web for their annual dose of glitz (AFP)

The buzz surrounding the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev has barely created a ripple in eastern Ukraine after being banned by Russian TV -- the only broadcasters aired in the war-ravaged region.

This vacuum has left enthusiastic teenage music fans like Maria Chkhan with no alternative but to turn to the one source of unfettered news and entertainment embraced by millennials the world over: the internet.

"I am even thinking of putting the Eurovision logo on my computer desktop," the 18-year-old aspiring jazz singer told AFP from the Russian-backed separatists' de facto capital city of Donetsk.

"But I doubt the teachers would take to it kindly," she added with a giggle.

More than 200 million people are expected to watch the annual extravaganza pitting 42 nations in a contest in which glamour and a touch of the absurd create a spectacle embraced by generations of Europeans.

But this year's competition has been partially overshadowed by a political row between Moscow and Kiev over Kiev's refusal to let Russian contestant Julia Samoilova take part.

The charismatic wheelchair-bound singer was barred for performing on Ukraine's Crimea peninsula a year after it was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Russia retaliated by refusing to broadcast Eurovision -- and created its underground cult following in Ukraine's war zone in the process.

In Ella Fitzgerald's shadow

Bookies are tipping Italian crooner Francesco Gabbani -- and his gorilla -- to take the crown
Bookies are tipping Italian crooner Francesco Gabbani -- and his gorilla -- to take the crown (AFP)

The Samoilova dispute is not high on the priority list of people who have suffered through three years of war that has claimed more than 10,000 lives and left the industrial heartland of the former Soviet republic in poverty and ruins.

But Eurovision's absence did strip many of the nearly four million people there of a rare glimmer of light relief from their daily hardships.

The insurgents shut down Ukrainian TV when the war began to stop locals hearing Kiev broadcasters calling them "terrorists" and accusing Russia of plotting and backing the war -- a charge the Kremlin denies.

Separatist leaders have also imposed nightly curfews that mean people such as Chkhan and her friends can only get together for Eurovision viewing parties the day after the evening show airs.

She and two other young women whose first names are also Maria hope to form a jazz trio called MMM.

The would-be band gathered on Wednesday to watch one of the elimination rounds and plan to do so again after Saturday's grand finale.

They scrutinise each performance with the eyes of professional critics in a small college rehearsal room fitted out with a piano and a black-and-white photo of the late jazz diva Ella Fitzgerald.

Chkhan criticised the would-be Russian contestant Samoilova for her "weak vocals and poor pronunciation of English."

"I think that Russia sent her for political reasons," said Chkhan.

Kiev has long argued that Moscow intentionally picked a wheelchair-bound contestant it knew would be banned in order to win sympathy and undermine Ukraine's reputation.

«Cultural renaissance»

But not all Donetsk musicians are sorry to see Eurovision skirt them by.

Yevgeny Ryba is the lead singer of a popular local rock band called Duglas and treats the pop extravaganza with a big dose of disdain.

Eastern Ukraine is still living through a destructive conflict -- a far cry from the glamour of Eurovision
Eastern Ukraine is still living through a destructive conflict -- a far cry from the glamour of Eurovision (AFP)

"That is not real music," the 40-year-old huffed while taking a break in a local music cafe.

"There is no Eurovision on TV? Fine. They do not show Indian cricket here either," he said with a sarcastic grin.

Ryba's band performed in Donetsk during Eurovision's opening gala ceremony in Kiev last Sunday.

He argued that shows such as his have created a "cultural renaissance" out of the ruins of war and alleviated the constant sense of crisis in the region.

Chkhan agreed that "no one really knows what country we will end up living in".

But she also laughed off the suggestion that the music scene in Donetsk had risen to international standards.

"I hope that our culture will improve so that one day, we too can take part in competitions," Chkhan said.