Feb 10, 2016

Crimean Tatars: The Power of Lyrics

One of the leading candidates to represent Ukraine in 2016 Eurovision contest is Jamala, an ethnic Crimean Tatar singer. Jamala’s  growing popularity became evident  after winning  the final round even despite the vast majority  of Crimean Tatars were not able to vote. Her song describes the situation in Crimea and is dedicated to her family who still live in the Russian-occupied peninsula.

This article was published by Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty.

KYIV -- The leading contender to represent Ukraine in this year's Eurovision song contest is a 32-year-old Crimean Tatar with a heart-rending song recalling how Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered the mass deportation of her entire nation to Central Asia in 1944.

Singer Jamala won the national quarterfinal competition with her song 1944, receiving the highest scores both from the judges and from the text-message voting -- even though the vast majority of Crimean Tatars were unable to cast ballots because they live in Crimea, which was forcibly annexed by Russia in 2014. (Ukrainian telecom companies were kicked out of the region following the Russian takeover, and now their equipment is being used there by Russian firms.)

"It makes me very sad," Jamala told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "I know that many of my supporters are in Crimea. Many people wrote to me that they would send texts anyway, because they support me. I tell them they are wasting their money and their votes don't count, but they tell me they are sending them anyway."

Nonetheless, Jamala's performance at the February 6 quarterfinals in Kyiv produced an outpouring of support on social media.

"Your music today made me understand the pain of our loss of Crimea," wrote a user identified as Ruslan. "I simply wept along with you."

With English lyrics and a chorus in Crimean Tatar, 1944 evokes the Soviet Red Army's deportation of nearly 250,000 Crimean Tatars in May of that year. The Soviet government had accused the Crimean Tatars of collaborating with the Germans while the Nazis occupied the peninsula, so the nation was forcibly resettled to Central Asia and remote regions of Russia.

"Where is your mind?" Jamala sings in English. "Humanity cries. You think you are gods. But everyone dies. Don't swallow my soul. Our souls."

Then she switches to the chorus in Crimean Tatar, which borrows from a sort of unofficial national anthem of Crimean Tatars called Winds Of Alushta, a reference to a town in Crimea: "I couldn't enjoy my youth. I couldn't live there. I couldn't enjoy my youth. I couldn't live there."

Somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the deportees died within the first two years of exile, a tragedy Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada recognized in November as genocide.

'Difficult' Song - "This song really is about my family, my grandmother," Jamala told RFE/RL. "I had to write it. I really go through that time both when I wrote it and when I perform it. It is a memorial song and it is difficult for me to sing it."

Many Crimean Tatars writing on social media noted that the song reflects the situation in Crimea today, where Russian authorities have been accused of massive human-rights violations against Crimean Tatars.

Jamala, whose full name is Susana Dzhamaladinova, was born in Kyrgyzstan in 1983, where her family settled after her father's parents endured the deportation. Jamala and her father are Muslims, while her mother is a Christian of Armenian descent.

She began studying classical music as a child in Soviet Kyrgyzstan and later studied at the Simferopol Music College after her family was able to return to Crimea. However, her true love was jazz and she began entering vocal competitions while still a teenager. She won the grand prize at the New Wave festival in Jurmala, Latvia, in 2009.

In 2011, Jamala reached the finals of Ukraine's Eurovision competition with the song Smile (below). However, she withdrew from the competition before the final round to protest perceived irregularities in the voting procedures.

Crimean Tatar leaders have pledged to work with Ukrainian Eurovision organizers to develop a system to enable people in Crimea to vote in the second semifinal on February 13 and the final on February 21.

"If Crimeans are not able to vote in such Ukrainian competitions, we are silently agreeing with those who say Crimea is not part of Ukraine," said Crimean Tatar leader Refat Chubarov.

Jamala noted that 1944 is not only about the past. When she sings it, she said, she remembers her own family, which is still in Crimea.

"Now the Crimean Tatars are on occupied territory," she told RFE/RL. "And it is very hard for them. They are under tremendous pressure. Some have disappeared without a trace. And that is terrifying. I would not want to see history repeat itself."