Kindly Russian grannies grab Eurovision spotlight

Six old ladies are now all the rage in Baku

John Dyer By John Dyer

Members of Buranovskiye Babushki, a singing group of six grannies who will represent Russia this year in the Eurovision Song Contest, offer homemade dumplings at a folk museum near the village of Ludorvai in the central Russian region of Udmurtia. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Americans have American Idol and Dancing with the Stars. For people living in 42 countries from Ireland to the Caucases, there’s Eurovision.

Started in 1956, Eurovision’s become an annual early summer event for Europeans, who sit in bars and cafes, watch Eurovision on TV and gawk and gab about the different acts. To add suspense to the exercise, viewers televote to pick winners.

Eurovision Song Contest organizers claim to have attracted an audience of 70 million people last year. In 2009, around 124 million viewers tuned in, the most ever, making the music contest one of the most-viewed events in the world. They expect a similar audience when the contest’s semi-finals start in Azerbaijan on Tuesday, May 22nd.

Every year, a fluke Eurovision act attracts special attention. They might wear rubber costumes, like Finland’s Lordi, the 2006 winners. Or they might be exceptionally good musicians who seem out of place in a competition that usually features amateurs. (Even though this year the UK nominated 75-year-old singer Engelbert Humperdinck.) Some of the acts go on to greatness. Abba won in 1974, and Celine Dion in 1988.

As the Museum of Broadcasting Communications describes, the acts are a grab bag:

The Eurovision Song Contest is a long, live Saturday evening showcase of pop music talent that typically ranges from the indescribably bad, through the insufferably indifferent, to a few catchy little numbers.

This year, the out-of-left-field act is Russia’s Buranovskiye Babushki, reports Azerbaijan’s English-language news site, Trend. Here’s a video of their first rehearsal in the contest’s venue, the massive Crystal Hall on the shores of the Caspian Sea in downtown Baku.

Watching the video, you might have noticed something. Yes, the Babushki are old. Roughly translated as the Buranovo Grannies, the group is comprised of six women aged 43 to 76. They hail from a village in the Ural Mountains and sing in Russian, English and Udmurt, their native language. (It’s related to Finnish.)

The grannies have risen to popularity in Russia by performing Beatles songs and the like in their style that fuses pop, Slavic and Udmurt traditions. Their Eurovision song, “Party for Everybody,” beat out 24 Russian nominees, among them an act including 2008 Eurovision winner and Russian hearthrob Dima Bilan and Yulia Volkova of Russia’s sexy duo Tatu, the BBC reported.

Trend describes how the grannies have charmed the paparazzi of Baku:

For two days of press conferences this was the longest and caused a huge interest of the media. Questions rained down, and the ‘Grannies’ and the leaders of the band responded to them with characteristic humor and songs in English and Udmurt.

“Performing at the stage, we are changing and opening new possibilities in ourselves and see how the people around us are changing for the better. Youth sings, and we can not or what? And how! Although the Party for Everybody didn’t come easily to us. First it was translated from English into Russian and then in Udmurt, by letters, of course. The main thing for us is taking part in the contest, not a victory,” ‘Grannies’ said.

In old-lady fashion, the grannies aren’t performing in the Eurovision contest for their own glory. The BBC reported that they want to build a church in their village with any money they raise from the experience. The Eurovision Song Contest doesn’t award cash prizes.