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Eurovision 2012 - Come on and do the Congo

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Iran, Indonesia, Guatemala, India, Cuba, Congo, Morocco. No - not the new axis of evil, but the homeland of some of the favourites to win this year's Eurovision Song Contest.

In the past few years, countries traditionally seen as mono-cultural or ethnically homogenous have increasingly sent singers and songs to Eurovision that cross geographical and cultural boundaries. Whilst in sporting events, the sight of black faces competing at the highest levels for countries with no known black population is common; participants in Eurovision have typically shown a more traditional - and provincial - side to a country. Countries typically sent artists as musical and national ambassadors. Viewers recognised this, and millions tuned in to the contest, safe in the knowledge that the Turkish number would have an Eastern beat and barely-clad dancers; the Spanish singer with her long, dark hair would reel something off with raunchy passion; and that somewhere from an ex-Yugoslav republic, there would be pan-pipes, an accordion and a man wearing a funny ethnic hat.

This year however, in line with an increasing trend, several major Eurovision countries are showing a more modern - and global - face to both their artists and their songs.

Songwriters and singers from different countries representing Eurovision nations is nothing new: Swedish songwriters have, particularly recently, been ubiquitous and co-wrote last year's Azerbaijani winning entry. In terms of singers, Canadian Céline Dion won the contest for Switzerland in 1988; Greek-born Vicky Leandros did the same for Luxembourg 16 years before that. Neither artist however presented anything particularly new. Both sang in French (an official language of the country they were representing) and both sang powerful and catchy ballads about a departed loved-one. More importantly, both represented a popular, albeit mediocre, version of an easily identifiable Western European style of music - as do the majority of the recent Swedish-penned entries.

Much changed in Eurovision terms in the mid to late 1990s with the break-up of the Soviet Union. Between 1994 and 2008, no less than 22 Central and Eastern European countries joined the Eurovision party. Some bemoaned the move East and the accompanying cultural shift (stand up, Terry Wogan), but it was inevitable that the UK's pop cultural hegemony would be less relevant in Belarus, than that of say, Russia. The European Broadcasting Union rode the wave of a huge increase in the contest's reach and commercialisation (though sadly not credibility). The Eurovision Song Contest remains one of the most watched non-sporting events in the world.

Yet despite this move east, both geographically and culturally, the same principles applied: you could always on the whole tell by watching and listening where a song was from. That pretty curly-haired blond girl with great legs and knee-high boots? Yep, from Ukraine. That dark-haired demure-yet-devastatingly beautiful young woman singing about apricots? Yep, representing Armenia. The growing familiarity with these regional quirks (and their voting patterns) was part of the fun and the debate, for casual observers and die-hard fans alike.

Things slowly changed. Countries entered songs unrelated to their traditional musical style. The first of this new wave to win was Estonia in 2001 with a song co-sung by the Aruban Dave Benton. It was the first time a black singer had won the contest. The song, "Everybody", had strong Calypso roots. It's fair to say that Estonia isn't typically associated with the genre. Nowadays, there is an increasing trend for contestants to 'borrow' musical styles from other countries, with mixed success. Norway won in 2009 with a young Belorussian-born singer, playing a violin with eastern flair and universal appeal. In 2005 the UK headed East with Javine Hylton singing "Touch my Fire" - a song more souk than so UK. She, however, finished third from bottom.

This year Ukraine, Norway, Sweden, the UK and France have fielded artist with backgrounds from (respectively) Congo, Iran, Morocco, India and Indonesia. Quite a smörgåsbord (or rather, a thali?). For France and the UK, this is nothing new - both have fielded singers from ethnic minorities on numerous prior occasions. Even Cliff Richard, who represented the UK twice, was born in India and has Anglo-Indian heritage, much like the UK's 2012 entrant Engelbert Humperdinck. For somewhere like Ukraine however, it is quite a statement. As Yuriy Syrotyuk, a high-ranking member of the right-wing Svoboda (Freedom) Party controversially said of the mixed-race Ukrainian entrant for 2012, "Gaitana is not an organic representative of Ukrainian culture.

Sweden and Norway, despite simmering domestic tensions with their relatively new (but burgeoning) ethnic communities, have both recently sent artists, by popular vote, with heritage from Lebanon and Kenya (2011) and Morocco and Iran (2012). Whilst Kenya-born Stella Mwangi failed to qualify from the semi-finals for Norway in 2011 (singing partly in Swahili), Swede Eric Saade, with a Lebanese father and boyband looks, placed an admirable third place with his aptly-titled song, Popular.

This year, Iranian-born Tooji (representing Norway) and Loreen of Sweden (of Moroccan-Berber descent) will both battle it out with modern, catchy dance tunes. They represent a new type of European singer: polished, comfortable, global - proud to be representing their families' adopted countries yet unashamed of their ethnic heritage. Both Tooji and Loreen are ones to watch this year in Baku.

In terms of musical diversity, Romania's Mandinga (singing in Spanish with Cuban musicians) is one of this year's favourites.

For traditional fans, Portugal, Estonia, Slovenia and Finland will be performing songs in one of their official languages. What's more, the long-haired passionate Spanish woman will still be there too. As will the pan-pipes and the man in funny ethnic clothing from an ex-Yugoslav republic. And the accordion. Except this year, that pretty curly-haired girl with great legs and knee-high boots representing Ukraine? Yeah, she's from the Congo.

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