If someone tells you that everything you've been taught since age five is bullshit, the normal response is to yawn "oh yeah?” and find the quickest route out of the conversation. If a bug-eyed, moustachioed Ukranian in neon sweatpants tells you the same, whether you like it or not, you're likely to hear him out. Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hütz has a lot more to say, but his band — who are known as much for their devil-may-care attitude, chaotic stage shows, flamboyant garb and hot female back-up dancers as they are for their self-styled "Gypsy punk” — use utter garishness to smuggle their messages into the minds of their fans.
The band’s messages vary in their pertinence, political import and basic comprehensibility. The 14 tracks on Super Taranta, the band’s fifth album, cover everything from the banality of American marriage ceremonies to sex trafficking in Eastern Europe to an aptly named "Supertheory of Supereverything.” To get hung up on individual meanings is to miss the point, however, as Gogol Bordello’s mission statement is quite simple in essence: "We create an ultimate party,” the 34-year-old Hütz says incisively. "And in that party, we throw all these ideas out on the table, up for grabs. It’s like a fruit basket of progressive ideas.”
Like their namesake, Nikolai Gogol, who "smuggled” Ukrainian language patterns into his writing, the band are using punk rock to smuggle radical ideas and Romany culture into America. Gogol Bordello borrow from rebellious musical genres across the world, mashing together ideas just as recklessly as they do colours on album covers. The band’s eight members hail from just about everywhere (Israel, Russia, Ethiopia, and a token WASP), and with Hütz (a Ukrainian with Romany roots) at the helm, the band are able to launch a tangible protest against cultural homogenisation and boredom. Though dub sneaks into their tracks just as easily as political cabaret, their signature sound is American punk rock played in a Romany style.
Gogol Bordello have emerged at the forefront of an Eastern European craze here in the West. From bands like DeVotchKa, venues like New York’s Mehanata (aka the Bulgarian Bar, where Hütz’s weekly DJ night packs them in) to the "crazy Russian guy” on campus that everybody wants to befriend, people seem to be clamouring for all things Slavic. "It’s pretty much a scientific fact that we’re totally responsible for starting the whole trend,” Hütz says. "I am pretty much credited for that by every jury that there ever was… I cannot be challenged about it. It’s like challenging Charlie Chaplin with silent movies. Of course there were silent movies before Charlie Chaplin, but he’s the one who made it work.”
He may be indelicate, but it’s hard to question Hütz’s claim. His band just returned from a European tour, where they sparked "German hoe-downs” and headlined a show in Turkey to an audience of 7,000. They beat out Ben Harper, Fonseca and Lila Downs to win the Americas category of the 2007 BBC World Music Awards. And one needs only to sit at the sidelines of one of their shows to get a sense of how rabid their fan base is.
While Gogol Bordello is undoubtedly Hütz’s most successful project, it was not his first. "I was already a rock, punk musician since 14 years old — by the time I left, I was already on the hit parade in the Ukraine. My actual music career goes much far back than anybody’s really aware — the total amount of records I have out is actually nine.” At that time punk rock was flourishing in the region, putting cushy North American notions of do-it-yourself culture to shame. "At this point, what’s called counter-culture is basically MTV — there is very little handmade counter-culture. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, [in] the musical movement that I was in, people were literally building stages with their own hands to have a show, and having it in the most unexpected environments. It was just an enthusiasm-driven thing, a real community — people would die for music.”
The same dire circumstances that kept the punk scene thriving eventually contributed to Hütz’s departure from his native country. "The way the times were going… the mandatory draft in the army was approaching, and the way the situation in the country was pretty much forced me to take the opportunity to become a political refugee. And I did the right thing, for sure.” Life in the Soviet-era Ukraine was difficult to begin with, and after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 his family left for good. They travelled throughout Eastern Europe, landing in a number of refugee camps and Hütz, who had hitherto identified as Ukrainian, was introduced to his Romany roots during a trip to his parents’ home village. His mercurial lifestyle formed a worldview that reconnected him with that side of his heritage. Eventually the Hütz family ended up in Vermont, where the expatriate community put Eugene’s talents to good use. "I was invited to play Russian and Ukrainian weddings back in Vermont, where my refugee resettlement program brought me originally. The community was so huge that everybody needed that guy at their wedding who knows how to fucking rock. I was that guy who knew how to do it.”
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