Eurovision might be best known for power ballads, catchy pop numbers and dance floor fillers, but there’s also often a healthy scattering of fiddles, accordions and folk tunes from across the continent. (Except for this year, apparently, which I can only assume is because I told the editor that I’d write an article about them before first checking if there actually were any.)
So, in the absence of any folky songs in this year’s competition (unless you count this snippet in the Czech Republic’s entry which could have come from the Grenoside Sword Dance), I thought I’d look back at some of the best folk-inspired entries from the last couple of decades.
My definition for ‘folk’ here is fairly loose and essentially extends to anything with a traditional instrument on stage or a folky rhythm (I won’t say ‘being played’ as it’s pretty debatable that there’s any sound coming out of a few of these instruments). You’ll be surprised to hear there aren’t any Roud references or morris dance tunes, although Belgium’s 2009 entry did come suspiciously close to the morris dance, ‘Constant Billy’.
Presented in no particular order…
Urban Trad, ‘Sanomi’ (Belgium, 2003)
Belgium’s most successful entry into Eurovision in almost two decades, this was also the first ever entry to be sung in a ‘natural language’, leading Terry Wogan to comment, “they’ve got four languages in Belgium and they’re singing in an imaginary one, the very essence of the Euro”.
Urban Trad are full of top folk musicians, including box player Didier Laloy who plays the most seductive melodeon I’ve ever seen in this performance. The video above shows him in what I assume is his more natural environment, a gig at Boombal Festival in 2014.
Eimear Quinn, ‘The Voice’ (Ireland, 1996)
This haunting, Celtic-inspired song, featuring fiddle and bodhrun, actually won Eurovision in 1996. Eimear Quinn is still performing and releasing music. Her most recent album, Ériu, was released in 2020.
This is from the period when Ireland kept winning, giving me the opportunity to include the brilliant Father Ted episode, A Song for Europe.
Zdob şi Zdub & Advahov Brothers, ‘Trenulețul’ (Moldova, 2022)
Eastern Europe has a strong history of entering folky tunes to Eurovision, and Moldova’s entry last year continued this tradition. My personal favourite, it’s a kind of Gogol Bordello/Ramones crossover that wouldn’t sound out of place on a late-night folk festival stage.
ByeAlex, ‘Kedvesem’ (Hungary, 2013)
The lead singer of this group might look like he should be serving you a flat white in a trendy hipster coffee shop, but Alex Márta was not only Hungary’s entry into the 2013 contest, he’s also a journalist and novelist. This indie-folk number puts me in mind of Bon Iver and came a respectable 10th.
Alexander Ryback, ‘Fairytale’ (Norway, 2009)
This upbeat, violin-heavy tune actually won the competition, showing there’s a Eurovision market for folk (at least when paired with a poppy hook and performed by a fresh-faced Norwegian youth).
Sebalter, ‘Hunter of Stars’ (Switzerland, 2014)
It’s banjo time. Strong Mumford and Sons vibes from Switzerland’s 2014 entry, which was their best performing of the decade, reaching the heady heights of 13th place.
Go_A, ‘Shum’ (Ukraine, 2021)
Ukraine could have been on this list a number of times, not least with their winning entry last year. But for me, this is their best entry, apparently inspired by the folklore of Northern Ukraine and incorporating elements of Ukrainian folk songs that were sung in the ‘Shum’ folk ritual. It is, as my wife puts it, an “absolute banger”, and is also staged beautifully.
Severina, ‘Moja Štikla’ (Croatia, 2006)
Croatia’s ‘turbo-folk’ 2006 entry features a number of traditionally-dressed Balkan folk musicians and dancers, as well as call-and-response lyrics. The song is apparently Severina’s experience of various chat-up attempts from local men, which sounds like a modern-day folk tragedy ballad to me.
Aarzemnieki, ‘Cake To Bake’ (Latvia, 2014)
As far as I can tell, there’s no hidden message behind this folk-pop singalong from Latvia; it is literally about baking a cake. It did not, in fact, qualify for the final. Altogether now…
We’ve got a cake to bake, and got no clue at all
We’ve got a cake to bake, and haven’t done that before
Don’t be proud, mate, please don’t bother
Go, come on and ask your mother
How to bake, how to bake, bake that cake
Gipsy.cz, ‘Aven Romale’ (Czech Republic, 2009)
Another track that could have come straight from a Gogol Bordello album (a band I think would go down a storm at UK folk festivals – bookers, take note). Speaking of which, this band, Gipsy.cz, who play a combination of hip-hop and traditional Romany music, have actually played a little UK festival called Glastonbury.
Fascinating article, I loved Eimear Quinn with The Voice