Eurovision Semifinals Under Way

KIEV, Ukraine -- Eurovision, the continent's annual extravaganza of florid musical groups and cheerful cheesiness, got under way Thursday with contestants from 25 countries competing in the semifinals.

Greece's Helena and the Norwegian band Wig Wam are seen by bookmakers in London and Kiev as the odds-on favorites in Saturday's finals. Ten semifinalists will advance and performers from 15 other countries already won slots automatically, including Britain, France, Germany and Spain.

Switzerland's all-female Vanilla Ninja and Hungary's Nox also are seen as strong possibilities, and Bosnia-Herzegovina's Feminem appeared likely to make the cut for the finals,

Eurovision is one of Europe's major media events, with more than 150 million people expected to watch the televised final round. The winner is determined by telephone voting.

Despite the intense interest in Europe, Eurovision's performers rarely make much of a dent in other cultures' consciousness - a notable exception being ABBA, whose 1974 win with "Waterloo" launched them into worldwide stardom.

Eurovision contestants tend to go for tunefulness, vivid outfits and stage shows that eschew refined tastes. Many, however, draw heavily on their countries' musical traditions.

Last year's winner, Ruslana, was the epitome of both. Known for her negligible leather and fur outfits, she danced with modern aerobic intensity but her song was based on ancient tunes from Ukraine's wild Carpathian Mountains region.

Ukraine is unlikely to notch a second consecutive win, bookmakers seeing its entry as around an 80-1 shot. Even the group's name is a shaky proposition. Usually transliterated from Cyrillic as "Hryndzholi," the name's listed on Eurovision's website as "Greenjolly" - a peculiar decision in that Ukrainians generally pronounce "g" as "h."

However they're spelled, the group's music may be unexpectedly familiar to anyone who watched TV coverage of last year's Orange Revolution. One of their rap songs was the unofficial anthem of the protests, often chanted by the huge crowds that gathered in downtown Kiev to protest rigged presidential elections.

"It was the song of the revolution, it has some meaning for Ukrainians, but not for the rest of Europe ... and it's not the best song we've ever heard," admitted a Kiev bookmaker who gave his name only as Anatoly out of fears for his job security. Betting is not entirely legal in Ukraine.

The government of President Viktor Yushchenko, who was elected after the protests, is eager to use Eurovision to promote his drive to bring the ex-Soviet republic closer to Europe.

City authorities have decorated downtown Kiev with orange ribbons - Yushchenko's campaign color.

According to organizers from the state-run National Broadcaster of Ukraine, the finals were sold out, and even many accredited journalists were told they will not be allowed into the venue.

Security was tight near the Sports Palace, the contest's venue, and in downtown Kiev, where police searched cars and passers-by.

Police even deployed several river boats and divers to patrol the Dnipro River and the tent camp erected as an alternative accommodation for thousands of Eurovision fans on Trukhaniv Island, just outside the city center.

Source: AP Wire