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Eurovision Explained: by instruments

11 December 2020 at 17:00 CET
Adrian Lulgjuraj represented Albania already in 2013. Now he is back in the national selection Thomas Hanses (EBU)
Welcome back to 'Eurovision Explained'. This time we take a closer look at some of the musical cornerstones of the Contest. It's time to talk about burning pianos and synchronised drums in Eurovision Explained: by instruments!

We go back again to Petra Mede in the Interval Act for Eurovision 2016 when she told us that the Contest "has to have drums". Petra wasn't wrong either, and these examples can be found throughout the competition's history. In fact, one country has shown an exceptional interest in using this particular instrument and that's Ukraine!

Take Ruslana's 2004 song Wild Dances for example. While the performance focused heavily on singing and dancing, the song significantly featured the use of drums. However, when they returned to the Eurovision stage as the Opening Act in 2005 with Heart On Fire, their performance made up for it this time and included not one, but 6 giant drums (and several others) operated by 6 different performers on an elevated platform!

In 2005, GreenJolly took it one step further than Ruslana's 2004 entry by placing their drummer right in the middle of the stage for their performance of Razom Nas Bahato. So too did O. Torvald in 2017 with their entry Time, however their drummer was less obviously featured on the left of stage. That theme resurfaced again when Go_A's drummers in 2020 performed on the left and right of stage for their song Solovey - but this Ukrainian group went a bit extra and sprinkled the drums with powder that dramatically dispersed into the air every time the drumstick hit the drumhead.

Even Ukraine's interval act in 2017 involved the drums on stage. Megamix by Onuka featuring the NAONI Orchestra had a more modern black and white, hexagonal-shaped drum kit. Bonus trivia: it featured on the right of stage this time.

Of course there are many other ways instruments can be utilised in a Eurovision performance. Several countries have chosen the use of multiple classical instruments instead, like Poland's 2008 entry For Life by Isis Gee which had violins, a cello and a piano on stage.

And who could forget the guitar and piano in Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan's act for Ireland in 1994 with Rock ’n’ Roll Kids?

Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan won the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest for Ireland. RTÉ

Indeed, Eurovision is not only a celebration of music but also an opportunity for countries to share their different cultures and traditions. Måns Zelmerlöw told us the importance of this in the 2016 Interval Act: "step 3: show the viewers your countries ethnic background by introducing an old, traditional folklore instrument that no one's heard of before."

Turkey did precisely that in 1997 with Dinle by Şebnem Paker & Etnic. Ercan Irmak played the ney (wind instrument) and Ahmet Koç played the bağlama (stringed instrument). Even more recently, Joci Pápai honoured his Romany roots in his performance of Origo for Hungary in 2017 and incorporated a traditional milk jug as a drum. His performance also featured the violin (more on that instrument soon).

Conversely, other countries often choose to add a more modern touch to your ordinary musical instruments. Take Paula Seling and Ovi for example. Their entry Playing With Fire for Romania in 2010 included not just any piano, but a double-sided, shine-through piano made by Seling's husband. The extravagance didn't stop there either. They further enhanced it by adding white-glimmering LED lights. Oh, and for added pizzazz it also 'played with fire' too, so to speak.

Combining fire with a musical instrument seems to be a theme in Eurovision. Adrian Lulgjuraj and Bledar Sejko did just that with their performance of Identitet for Albania in 2013 which also included a lot of drums too!

Austria joined in on the pyrotechnical fun too in 2015 with their song I Am Yours by The Makemakes which featured a burning piano. As you do.

The Makemakes represented Austria in 2015 Elena Volotova (EBU)

When talking about instruments at the Eurovision Song Contest though, you have to mention the violin. "Step 4! In Eurovision, nothing says winner like a violin. Trust us - bring a violin," said Måns. Norway won twice when the violin played a big role in its entry. There was Nocturne by Secret Garden in 1995 when the Contest took place in Ireland. The winning song only consisted of 24 words and was inspired by Celtic music. The group's violinist was also from Ireland, so we guess you could say it was a victory for them too!

One of the most popular contestants of recent times, Alexander Rybak, played the violin during his performance of Fairytale for Norway back in 2009. He actually went on to win the competition with a record-breaking 387 points out of a possible 492, the highest total score in Eurovision history at that time. We guess Petra was right in this instance too!

Alexander Rybak won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2009 EBU

The late 2000's looked like a popular time for the violin. Estonia's Urban Symphony by Rändajad in 2009 featured the instrument with the cello and successfully made it into the top 10. Dima Bilan won the Contest for Russia in 2008 with his song Believe.

Although the Contest has spanned several decades it has always tried to keep up its audience. Petra told us in 2016 that the use of all these traditional instruments might actually make a Eurovision song a bit too old fashioned. Luckily, it's nothing that couldn't "be easily fixed by adding a DJ who pretends to scratch." OK, so she goes on to say that a DJ set may be 30 or more years old, but "in Eurovision it will give your number a contemporary feel."

Norway moved on from violins in 2017 with Grab The Moment by JOWST which also went on to hit the Top 10 in the Grand Final. However, Poland's DJ-infused performance of Light Me Up in 2018 had a less successful finish coming in 14th place in the Second Semi-Final.

Just like the violin, you can't talk about the use of instruments in Eurovision without mentioning the live orchestra, which accompanied the Contest from 1956 all the way to 1998.

The orchestra at the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest. BBC

From traditional, ethnic musical instruments to DJ sets and from live orchestras to see-through, burning pianos, what's not to love about this weird and wonderful competition?

Let us know your favourite musical instrument performances from Eurovision!