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Babushkis: Polish soccer’s secret weapon

Buranovskiye Babushki of Russia perform their song "Party For Everybody" during a rehearsal for the Eurovison Song Contest final in Baku, May 25, 2012.


Do you sing when you watch soccer? Europeans fans do, and the odds of them showing up for a major international tournament without a new song are on par with the likelihood of Don Cherry doing Coach's Corner in a hoodie.

Every nation in the Euro Cup, which starts Friday in Warsaw, seems to have a new-minted football anthem. The one getting the most attention is Poland's Koko Koko Euro Spoko, a jaunty ditty sung by a group of elderly women in demure regional costume. Jarzebina, an 18-member folk choir, beat nine other contestants in a phone-in vote during a live broadcast over Polish TV on May 3.

Their song is an amped-up version of a traditional tune, with heavy beats and new lyrics about the ball flying high. The "koko koko" part of the chorus refers to the clucking of hens, and perhaps also to Kocudza, the singers' native village in eastern Poland.

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Jarzebina's moment of fame coincides with a strong showing at the recent Eurovision Song Contest by Buranovskiye Babushki (Buranovo Grannies), another clutch of elderly rural singers, from the tiny Udmurt Republic. Six of the eight Babushki, wearing heavily embroidered regional dress, represented Russia on the hugely popular Eurovision broadcast on May 26, and got enough phone-in votes to place second with their folk-like dance number, Party For Everybody.

What is it about these grannies that trumped more polished performers? That may be the nub of it – their lack of polish, their obvious sincerity, and their uninvolvement in the surface criteria for pop media success.

Like Susan Boyle, the grannies pose a test of everyone's attitudes about women in the public eye who aren't young, slim and provocatively dressed. But they also fit into a new, mainly televisual narrative about celebrity, in which the most ordinary-seeming person can rise to overnight stardom.

Boyle made that fairy-tale ascent in ordinary clothes, while singing a we ll-known song from a hit musical. The grannies, by contrast, flaunt their roots in folk culture, in a way that forced a sharp divide in Polish opinion after Jarzebina won. Online comments were split, between cheers that Poland's traditional culture was getting a boost beyond its borders, and fears that the grannies' prominence would hurt Poland's international image.

"I think of Poland as having a divided culture," says Peter Solomon, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto who specializes in Eastern European affairs. "There are those who feel themselves to be Europeans, and who are embarrassed by stuff that reminds them of the old peasant world." Solomon says it's unlikely that right-wing nationalism played much part in the success of either of the granny groups.

In any case, the Babushki must have charmed non-Russians too, to do so well at Eurovision. It's impossible to gauge how much they were helped by the kind of camp value that propelled Russian singer Eduard Khil – aka Mr. Trololo, who died last this week – to YouTube stardom a few years ago. The Babushki's cover version of Hotel California isn't campy at all, and achieves a homespun gravitas you'll never hear from the Eagles.

As for Jarzebina, Ela Klicper, owner of the Novum Moltum Multum Polish music store in Toronto, says the group wasn't nearly as well-known as younger folk-fusion bands such as Zakopower, who put a pop twist on music from Poland's southern Goral region. But Klicper thinks Jarzebina had something going for them that other contestants lacked.

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"Their song is simple and easy to sing," she says. "People can learn to sing it very quickly." That's not a bad thing in a football anthem.

Poland is one of two host countries for the three-week, eight-city Euro Cup. The other is Ukraine, whose tournament anthem Davaj, graj (Go, play) is a slick Madonna-style dance number by Ruslana, who won the Eurovision contest in 2004. The Cup's official song is another synth-heavy dance ditty: Endless Summer, by Oceana Mahlmann, a German singer with Martiniquan roots. It's not as soulful as her cheeky Pussycat on a Leash from 2010, but streets ahead of Shaggy's 2008 Euro Cup song Like a Superstar, which was both forgettable and unsingable.

The most mournful Euro Cup anthem probably belongs to the English, whose national team has a notoriously poor record in international play. Sing 4 England, performed by Sky Sports broadcaster Chris Kamara & Joe Public Ltd., Utd., includes such hang-dog lyrics as "some say that we're not good enough," and "this is our time to prove them wrong." What can you say to that, but koko koko?

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More


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