Gogol Bordello's Gypsy punk
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 22, 2004) – For a long time, Eugene Hutz’s favorite musics were Gypsy and punk. And he spent many hours -- days, months and then years -- fantasizing about how the “underdog energy” of both styles would sound if and when merged.
“I was waiting around for someone else to do it, and then it was the year 2000, and no one was doing it, so it was time for me to do it, and that’s how Gypsy-punk was born,” said Hutz, who brings his Gypsy-punk band, Gogol Bordello, to Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) on Saturday at 9, in a recent phone interview from his apartment in New York.
Hutz says that given their obvious affinities, he is surprised that no one tried to combine the two musical styles before. “I think the underdog energy and the extreme passion of the music are the common qualities,” said Hutz, a native of Kiev, Ukraine, who came to the U.S. in 1991. “Both punk and Gypsy come from very specific social settings where people rely on music not only as some kind of leisurely activity but as a necessary form of life that is in a way an essence of life.
“In Gypsy culture and in punk people see music not as a hobby, but as a pretty serious kind of engine of their survival. People rely on it to overcome pressures of poverty and depression and many things. By making Gypsy-punk we hope to double that force and to have a new entity that takes people even higher. Because the music you hear now basically just brings you down.”
As heard on the group’s CDs, including “Voi-La Intruder” and “Multi Kontra Culti vs. Irony” (Rubric), Gypsy Bordello’s fusion is a raw and riotous, energetic mix. Violins clash with accordions, saxophones bounce off guitars, and Hutz hovers over them all with his enraged vocals. The end result sounds like what might happen if a ska band joined forces with a klezmer outfit to back Johnny Rotten on a tour through the villages of Eastern Europe.
The group got its start as a duo when Hutz met an accordionist at a Russian wedding. Once they began performing in New York City, the band started to grow. “It seemed like every gig we played we added a new member,” he said, “and at a certain point we had to stop, of course.”
The group is a genuine melting pot, now consisting of eight musicians, including accordionist Yuri Lemeshev, from Russia, Sergey Rjabtzev, a Russian Gypsy violinist, guitarist Oren Kaplan and saxophonist Ori Kaplan, who are both from Israel but not related. The group also includes dancer/percussionist Andra Ursuta from Romania, and two Americans: dancer/percussionist Pamela Racine, and drummer Eliot Ferguson.
“The key was to select people in the band who were characters,” said Hutz, who calls himself “an Eastern European mutt” with a mixture of Ukrainian, Russian and Gypsy ancestry. “They had to be musical characters as well, and people who know Eastern European music by heart. So within a short while we basically had an orchestra of immigrants freaking out on this semi-new, semi-old premise.”
That premise, says Hutz, is about combining authenticity and nostalgia. “Authentic doesn’t mean old,” he said. “It means to be a genuine result of a certain spiritual or lifestyle direction. And it means raw. So of course partly our music is driven by nostalgia, but I think it’s even more largely driven by nostalgia for the future, because the karaoke swamp that music is now in is just unbearable.”
Within just a few years of getting together, the group garnered attention with feature articles in the Village Voice and the New York Times. Darlings of the downtown art set like their forebears the Velvet Underground before them, the group was featured in performance as part of the Whitney Biennial in the spring of 2002.
But the members of Gogol Bordello never forget that arty is subsumed under within party. “I don’t remember one show when the audience didn’t dance,” said Hutz. “That never happened. There is nothing wrong with making Gypsy-punk-lambada in Ukrainian. We do that sometimes. It’s interesting to find how a South American feel can be suddenly so relevant with an Eastern European emotional message.”
Still, Hutz is not denying or minimizing the fundamental political message at the heart of Gogol Bordello. “It’s clearly much more than a party for party’s sake. It’s kind of a party for the sake of innovation and originality, which is so far gone from the modern culture. Our party requires people’s participation and engagement. Ultimately to engage is what the human soul is looking for. So that’s how we win in this stupid battle with karaoke culture.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 24, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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