In the middle of a field that was devastated by the 2019 fire that razed most of Moshav Mevo Modi’in and 500 acres of nearby forest, a fresh-faced group of 36 participants in the Eurovision Song Contest planted 18 saplings, one for each of their countries.
The saplings planted on Monday in the KKL Eurovision Forest, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, represented so much to these young musicians, who, particularly those from Eastern Europe, are grappling with war, uncertainty, economic strife, global dissent and climate change, much of which is reflected in their music.
The KKL Eurovision Forest is located within the European Forest, which is part of the larger Ben Shemen Forest.
The Eurovision semifinals will be held in Liverpool on May 9 and 11, and online voters will determine who joins Ukraine (last year’s winner that yielded hosting duties this year due to the war) and the Big Five (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom) in the finals on May 13.
Unlike the upbeat music of former war-torn eras, some of Eurovision’s new crop of music has ceded to an edgier, darker tone. The Keren Kayemet LeYisrael-Jewish National Fund event celebrated hope for better times and a healthier planet. And it cemented a relationship with the State of Israel—a win-win-win.
Karine Bolton, director of International Relations for KKL-JNF, kicked off the event by saying, “Your music is like a seed of hope being planted for the future.”
Eurovision Song Contest 2023 delegations were in Israel for the annual Israel Calling event marking 50 years of Israel’s participation in the contest. This is the fourth year KKL-JNF has invited the participants to join in planting trees.
According to Ronnie Vinnikov, head of resources development and external affairs, the event offered a way for KKL-JNF to reach out to young people.
“We want to engage the next generation to get involved,” he explained. “And we want to make the opportunity to plant a tree contagious. By planting a tree, and sharing it with their vast social networks, we hope that they will get others to plant trees—either here in Israel or in their own countries, and perhaps to donate as well.”
Indeed, the social media music managers were out in force, following their subjects as they donned gloves and caps and planted trees, looking for clever quips, cute poses and social media-worthy sound bites.
One of the Eurovision front-runners, Reiley (Rani Petersen), an Adonis of a man from Denmark, admitted that he had never planted a tree before.
“I come from the Faroe Islands, a chain of about 18 islands,” the 25-year-old shared about his craggy, volcanic birthplace. “We have big mountains and it’s very mossy. I love going on walks and hikes. But we don’t have trees back home so I was really looking forward to this experience.”
Luke Black (Luka Ivanović), who will represent Serbia at the Eurovision with the song “Samo mi se spava,” (“I Just Want to Sleep”), one of the few non-English language songs, said he never explored nature.
“I don’t do nature—I play video games,” he explained. “But when I announced my decision to go into music, my grandfather planted a tree to commemorate it. I didn’t do the dirty work back then, so I look forward to doing it now.”
He added that his father is very religious and wanted him to visit Jerusalem and to absorb the holy energy of the city. He, on the other hand, wanted to visit Tel Aviv—the party city. Now that he is here, he says he looks forward to visiting Jerusalem with his father.
For some of the artists, the act of planting a tree was a spiritual one. Blanca Paloma, whose Eurovision entry “Eaea” is a dulcet Spanish lullaby with Middle Eastern overtones, was brought to tears as she planted her tree and sang her sweet tribal melody, “When I die, may they bury me in the moon so that I’ll see you every night.”
The Eurovision offerings this year are all online and many are laced with tension and drama. The emotional Albanian entry “Duje,” (“Love It”), performed by Albina Kelmendi and her entire musical family—mom Albana, music professor sister Sidorela, brother Albin and dad Bujar—depicts a woman coming to her former family home and grappling with her special memories as well as the demons of turmoil in her family relationships. All were in Israel and they planted their tree together.
“It’s about love of family and love of home,” explained Albina. “Like the tree, the roots are from the family, and it is the place you always come back to.”
“Heart of Steel”
Ukrainian entrants Andrii Hutsuliak and Jeffrey Kenny (Jimoh Kehinde), with their band Tvorchi, will present their song “Heart of Steel.” While they wrote the song years ago, they chose it this year to inspire people, particularly fellow Ukrainians, to be strong and not to give up hope. The music video has hints of the violence and fear of war with lights strobing like bullets and gas-mask-garbed musicians.
“We hope to soon be planting trees in Ukraine,” said Jeffrey. “In our own land.”
For 23-year-old identical twins Tural and Turan Bağmanov from Azerbaijan, who will perform their Beatles-esque song “Tell Me More” at Eurovision, this is their first trip abroad. Their online video, shot entirely in Azerbaijan, mimics scenes from Abbey Road and combines an iPhone ringtone and George Harrison-style guitar riffs with a brief rap interlude. They credit the Beatles and Coldplay as their musical influences.
What do the twins think about Israel?
“It looks like in the movies,” Turan (or maybe it was Tural) said. “Watching the sunset over the ocean is amazing. It feels like the [Eagles’] song ‘Hotel California.’” Tural and Turan are the authors of both the music and the lyrics of their entry song.
San Marino, a microstate surrounded by north-central Italy, has produced Piqued Jacks, an intense hard rock entry with its song “Like an Animal.”
Andrea Lazzeretti, the lead singer, said that being from San Marino, an environmental course was always part of their mission.
“We try to bring attention to deforestation,” he added.
“Every Latvian has planted a tree at one point or another,” added a member of Latvia’s Sudden Lights band. “We have a real connection to the soil and to the tree. We do it for our future—and for our children as well.” They will be presenting their song “Aijā” (“Hushaby” or “Shush”) at the first semifinal on May 9.
Monika Linkytė is no stranger to Eurovision, having represented her native Lithuania in the 2015 contest. “Lithuania is full of forests and trees, but most importantly we are free. Not every country can say this. Her new song, “Stay—Čiūto tūto,” will be presented at the second semifinal on May 11.
“Čiūto tūto,” she explained, is an old Lithuanian folk music phrase. At first glance her song, which stood out from the rest, seems to be an Adele-like pining ballad with its lyrics “My heart is beating, I need your healing, It isn’t easy to love someone like me, Čiūto tūto.”
Linkytė displayed a “Cuito Tuto” tattoo on her arm.
“It is like a mantra. It gives you the energy to connect with your inner self. To feel the power to connect with inner peace.
“It’s about hope,” she added. “It is something to spread the energy through the music. Europe needs healing.”
Blanka (Stajkow), a beauty from Poland with an upbeat pop entry titled “Solo,” added, “Planting trees helps me connect with my roots. I hope when I go to Liverpool, I can plant a forest in the hearts of the world.”