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Eurovision Explained: by culture

29 January 2021 at 17:00 CET
Russia's Buranovskiye Babushki 'Partied For Everybody' but finished second at the Contest EBU
Welcome back to the series! In our fourth episode we celebrate the many different customs, traditions and backgrounds the Contest brings together through music and other forms. Now, it's time to Open Up to 'Eurovision Explained' by... culture!

"Step 3: show the viewers your country's ethnic background." These lyrics, sung by Måns Zelmerlöw during the Eurovision 2016 interval act Love Love, Peace Peace, inspired our latest episode. Come on a journey with us as we take a look back on all the fantastic ways culture has been honoured throughout the competition's history.

Who said the Eurovision Song Contest wasn't educational? Viewers were given an entertaining lesson with a perfect example of how to include culture in a performance when Georgia's 2018 entry from Ethno-Jazz Band Iriao sung For You in Lisbon.

The group's name s derived from the phrase, "Iriao-uruao" which comes from the famous yodeling singing style "Krimanchuli" from Georgian traditional polyphonic music. David Malazonia is the band leader and was also one of the first composers to introduce this genre of music in Georgia. Iriao’s distinct repertoire is based around authentic folk music, recognized internationally by UNESCO as a masterpiece of oral immaterial heritage.

We think this performance is truly beautiful. What are your thoughts?

Now, let's break down some other examples of how culture has been celebrated in a Eurovision performance.

Traditional instruments

One way that country's have paid tribute to their culture has been through the use of "old traditional folklore instruments that no-one's heard of before," (Måns Zelmerlöw, 2016).

Check out the masterpiece Lejla performed by Hari Mata Hari in 2006 for Bosnia & Herzegovina. The captivating act included elements of Sevdalinka (a traditional genre of folk music from their country) and took them all the way to third place in Athens, making it Bosnia and Herzegovina's best result in the Contest so far.

Can you name the unique instruments used in their performance?

Then, there was the performance of Horepse by Marianne Zorba for Greece in 1997. The song, about the power of dance to rejuvenate people, included several ethnic instruments too.

A crotalum, a kind of clapper instrument, was often used in religious dances by groups in ancient Greece and elsewhere. While we can't see a crotalum used in this performance, there is another handheld percussion instrument.

Marianne Zorba from Greece in 1997 RTÉ

When talking about the use of traditional musical instruments in a Eurovision performance, you can't go past the Pepe Lienhard Band for Switzerland. The all-male-group performed back in 1977 with their song Swiss Lady. While you're trying to name all the instruments involved, try not to get too distracted by their costumes and wacky mustaches:

Pepe Lienhard Band represented Switzerland in 1977 BBC

Native languages

In the earlier days of the Contest, it was easier to distinguish where each act came from by simply listening to the language/s used in the song.

Edyta Górniak sung To Nie Ja! in Polish in 1994. Her performance was Poland's debut in the Contest, and was the first time that the Polish language had been used in an entry.

The song achieved second place in the Final, which at the time was the highest ever placing attained by a debut song.

And Julio Iglesias sung Gwendolyne in Spanish in 1970. The song was performed ninth on the night and finished in fourth place overall. He once said that "taking part in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 helped me to grow as an artist and was a first step to learning what an international competition means."

We're curious, what does Eurovision, an international competition, mean to you?

Fans from all over the world get together in Tel Aviv for Eurovision 2019 EBU / Andres Putting

Then there are the countries who decide to perform their songs in English. Take Sweden for example, who haven't sung in their mother tongue since the language rule that required countries to speak in their own language was removed in 1999.

The last song Sweden performed in Swedish at the Eurovision Song Contest was in 1998 when Jill Johnson performed Kärleken är when the competition was held in Birmingham, United Kingdom.

Sweden immediately took advantage of the new rule change and brought Charlotte Nilsson (now Perrelli) to Jerusalem in 1999 with the song Take Me To Your Heaven which went on to win the competition.

But there is still a group of countries that often prefer to sing in their native language.

Like Italy for example. The country selected Mahmood and the song Soldi to represent them in 2019. Many commentators have the opinion that only English speaking songs go on to become popular these days in the Eurovision Song Contest. Well, Italy definitely proved them wrong with this entry.

Who can forget the collective claps from the audience during the performance of this massive hit?

Serbia also likes to showcase its language through song in the competition. Milan Stanković was chosen to represent his country with the song Ovo je Balkan back in 2010. His song was written by the renowned composer Goran Bregović who's been called the founding father of the Yugoslav rock scene. The song made it all the way to the Grand Final in Oslo and finished in 13th place.

Another country that frequently sings in their native language is Portugal. Flor-de-Lis sung Portugese in Todas as ruas do amor back in 2009 when the Contest was held in Moscow, Russia. The sound is based on popular Portuguese music too, from fado to folk!

Clothing and genre

There are visual ways to represent your culture too. For instance, you just saw Portugal's performance which included some heritage inspired clothing. And there are of course, particular styles of music that we know and love countries for.

If you were able to ignore the giant wood fire oven for a moment, you'd also have been able to notice the wonderful embroidered clothing used in Russia's 2012 act Party For Everybody by Buranovskiye Babushki. Their song and performance really took Russian music to another planet and they went on to finish in second place in Baku.

Buranovskiye Babushki - 'Party For Everybody' (Russia 2012)

We were all blessed with a visual Turkish delight when Rimi Rimi Ley took the stage with Gülseren in 2005. Feast your eyes on their colourful costumes and while you're at it - get up and dance to their amazing Turkish music too!

Dervish sung traditional folk music with They Can't Stop The Spring for Ireland in 2007. You can see Cathy Jordan (singer) perform in traditional Celtic inspired clothing. Who else can't help but stomp their feet to this classic Irish ballad?

It would amiss if we were not to include Sverre Kjelsberg & Mattis Hætta with their performance of Samiid Ædnan for Norway in 1980. This song was among the first instance of Sami influence on the wider culture of Europe.

The words of the song were performed in Norwegian by Sverre Kjelsberg, while Mattis Hætta contributed with the chorus sung in yoik, a Sami form of vocal music without words. The title of the song is in fact from the Northern Sami language though and translates to "Sami Earth" or "Sami Soil".

Sverre Kjellsberg and Mattis Hætta represented Norway in 1980 NOS


Interval acts have also been a great way for the Host Countries to show their culture and often feature a lot of traditional singing and dancing.

Take Ireland's Interval Act in 1994 which showcased their traditional stepdance, a style of dance characterized by a stiff upper body and quick foot movements often combined with energetic movement and elaborate costumes.

Riverdance in 1994 RTÉ

Serbia included a Folk Interval Act when they hosted the Contest in Belgrade for the 2008 edition. It included traditional music, instruments, costume and dance!

Interval act in Belgrade in 2008 RTS

Sometimes, country's have literally told us about their culture through their use of song and dance in the interval acts. Like Sweden did in 2013 with the performance of Swedish Smörgåsbord which included lyrics like "our people are cold" and performances with dancers and props that highlighted their "eco pride".

The Swedish Smörgåsbord of 2013 SVT

Well, that's all for now folks! Stay tuned next month for the following episode of Eurovision Explained!

What's your favourite example of culture in the Eurovision Song Contest so far?