The Norwegian duo known as JOWST were voted into Saturday’s grand final of the annual Eurovision Song Contest Thursday night, after two semi-finals that Eurovision’s Norwegian chief Jon Ola Sand has said were the most challenging that he’s ever had to lead.
They’ve been taking place this week in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital that’s been plagued by political dissent in a country that’s been on the verge of civil war for the past three years. Separatists, with the help of highly controversial Russian intervention, have been battling Ukrainian government forces in the eastern part of the country, with hostilities continuing as the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) mounted this year’s Eurovision carnival in Kiev.
The situation could hardly be more dramatic, and the production for which Sand is responsible started out as nightmare. Ukraine won Eurovision last year in Stockholm with a song full of political lyrics that that also angered Russia, which later ended up being excluded from the program by Ukraine because of controversy around Russia’s performer. Ukraine also has severe economic problems and Sand found himself dealing with additional challenges including internal personnel conflicts at the Ukrainian host broadcaster, trouble with ticket sales and a large government bureaucracy.
Sand, who started his broadcasting career at Norway’s NRK, also found himself losing 21 critical colleagues in Kiev who went on strike and withdrew from the Eurovision production because of the internal conflicts. Preparations for the huge production that’s aired live all over Europe and even now in Australia fell way behind schedule, and Sand had to send in reinforcements from the EBU to make sure the show would go on this week.
“This has all been much more challenging than I’ve earlier experienced, that I must say,” the mild-mannered Sand, who has led the Eurovision Song Contest for the EBU since 2011, told newspaper Aftenposten last week. “I feel we finally have control now.”
He said the political challenges in Ukraine meant that “we’ve had to work much more closely with the national arranger than usual. That’s why there are so many people from EBU in action here (in Kiev), to strengthen and speed the process. I’ve been here much more than I otherwise would be, too.” Ukraine used its national broadcaster to mount the production, Sand said, “but we have lots of Swedish, Danish, English and German production colleagues involved, many who were part of last year’s Eurovsion in Stockholm.”
The battles going on in Eastern Ukraine also forced closer cooperation with Ukrainian government authorities and the embassies of all participating countries in Eurovision. There were no signs that the armed conflict would spread to Kiev, but security issues have been high. Ukrainian authorities wanted to use Eurovision to present their nation in the best possible light, but Sand also has been responsible for keeping budgets under control. “Ukraine wants to show Europe that it’s a modern, young, creative and dynamic nation,” Sand told Aftenposten. “My job has been to make sure they do that within the framework of a sensible budget.”
Norway’s act grabbed the moment
In the end, Sand and his colleagues managed to pull off both semi-finals and see Norway make it into the final among 26 nations on Saturday night. JOWST’s song Grab the Moment, featuring the heavily tattooed singer Aleksander Walmann and masked songwriter Joachim With Steen (hence the duo’s name JOWST), won enough votes to join the nine others chosen from Thursday’s cast of 18 contestants. NRK reported that the both Walmann and Steen were mightily pleased with their performance.
“It went fantastically well, everthing worked,” Steen told NRK, no small accomplishment after the lights in his mask failed to work during Wednesday’s rehearsal. Both Sweden and Denmark have also advanced to the final, along with Moldova, Azerbaijan, Greece, Portugal, Poland, Armenia, Australia, Cyprus and Belgium on Tuesday and the Netherlands, Romania, Austria, Croatia, Israel, Hungary, Belarus and Bulgaria on Thursday.