Being able to dull the thin line separating elementary Anglo rock mannerisms from plausible ethnocentric eccentricities is a tricky proposition deviously aggrieved by cries of cynical corporate sellout or wretchedly foul thoughts regarding homogenized fraudulence. Obsessively accepting multi-cultural plurality while keeping solid footing in established rock tenets could be destructive or detrimental for anyone deigning fame with less-than-visionary intentions. Only indisputable revolutionaries need apply to formulate such an alien admixture since any ostensibly illegitimate act on their part will be seen as treason and those involved shall be torturously libeled.
Nevertheless, remarkably zany handlebar-moustached warrior, Eugene Hutz, daringly combines caliginous Eastern European tango and perky Bertolt Brechtian cabaret swing with pre-punk demigod Iggy Pop’s nihilistic gallivanting rumble and the thuggish ruffian subversion scruffy Irish rogue Shane MacGowan lent the Pogues. Hutz’s rough-and-tumble outfit, Gogol Bordello, adventurously ubiquitous globetrotters whose completely shambolic and imminently maniacal live shows have broadened their appreciative audience, help the salty busker ‘chaotically clash’ abrasive streetwise punk, lurid Vaudevillian trash, inebriated polka, and slunk salsa into frenetic pan-ethnic exuberance.
Ringleader Hutz provides pixilated Balto-Slavik-derived Indo-Euro linguistics and mischievously opulent debauchery to strike up his band of gypsies’ spontaneously ratcheted-up crackle with marvelously distinctive, wholly fantastical authenticity.
Born outside Kiev near the Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountain region during 1972, Hutz became a political refugee after the ’86 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and tyrannical Soviet turmoil forced his family to seek asylum in Poland, Hungary, Austria, Italy, then America. Hutz’s father played in one of the country’s first late ‘60s rock groups, Meridian, while his mother was a gypsy tap dancer-singer. Thereafter, their talented teenaged son began collecting black market tapes featuring experimental post-rock harbingers Einsterzende Neubauten, Birthday Party, Suicide, and the Contortions, bouncing around in formative psychobilly, industrial, and metal troupes before finding his true muse.
By ’98, Hutz was performing Russian weddings in bucolic New England haven, Vermont (where he landed stateside in ’92). Moving to New York City within a year, he embraced the world’s cultural capital with not only skillfully claustrophobic compositional pandemonium, but also an expansive gypsy punk revolt and colloquial Dadaist mentality designed to discourage rhetorically generic faux-punk posers crowding the currently compromised local underground scene.
Taking its primary moniker from grotesquely melancholy, profoundly visionary 19th century Ukrainian anarchist, Nikolai Gogol, Hutz’s wily assemblage espoused a colossal cast of immensely diversified instrumentalists. Madcap violinist Sergey Rjabtzev and picaroon accordionist Yuri Lemeshev, both ex-pat Russians, enjoined D.C.-based Ethiopian bassist Tommy Gobena, Israeli spaghetti Western-informed guitarist Oren Kaplan, and female dancing percussionists, Pam Racine and Elizabeth Sun. Furthermore, febrile drummer, Eliot Ferguson, was brought onboard to add a mandatory rock frenzy.
An enduring cathartic barrage of consistently engaging material compactly transporting and transposing Hutz’s hyper-sardonic wit bolsters ‘99s Voi-La Intruder and ‘02s Multi Kontra Culti Vs. Irony, early Gogol Bordello albums scouring a sacred, if nefarious, heritage soon-to-be reverberating halfway ‘round the universe. By trusting steadfast instincts, this cosmic harlequin toppled any tangibly bona fide ‘Sirva Roma’ tribal lineage with a liberating punk ethic, propelling a never-ending international block party. Acutely aware of the common principle uniting borrowed traditions they convolutedly revere the glorious past while rebelliously jettisoning Old World methodology. Standing on the precipice of achieving top echelon touring status, Hutz’s hedonistic crew is on a mission to convert puritan squares and indie snobs alike.
On ‘05s frightfully clever Gypsy Punks, Hutz’s emphatic baritone rasp leads the assault. There’s no denying the penetrable impunity of his ruggedly coarse voice, a grainy instrument employed for garrulously celebratory toasting and perfectly suited to shakedown musty broken-down post-Depression gin mills. Campy opening jig, “Sally,” may sound ‘Balkanized,’ but hits closer to home with its nominal Nebraska lass unwittingly spreading Hutz’s uplifting mutiny all over the state’s heartland. A siren awakens incriminating Balkan reel, “Not A Crime,” a damning mandate condemning fascist modern day oppression. Another veritable shotgun blast, “60 Revolutions (Per Minute),” pile-drives Kaplan’s metal guitar shrapnel through Hutz’s crassly emblazoned righteous screed dismissing faddish pop scum: ‘I make a better rock revolution alone with my dick.’
Following the dressed-up Lower East Side flamenco flange, “Avenue B,” snazzy beat-driven wedding day jolt, “Dogs Were Barking,” rips it up cryptic tango fashion. And provincial party anthem, “Think Locally, Fuck Globally,” comes off like a growling homeland shrug-off counter-intuitively lauding the Big Apple’s still-thriving bohemian temperament. Elsewhere, dub-styled breakdowns, alien reggae transmissions, and minimalist no wave schemes detonate inside multifarious numbers.
Undoubtedly though, the best way to experience these frantic neo-pirates is in concert, where they knock ‘em dead every time. A dangerous elixir of Klezmer, Indian rai, and Middle Eastern elements, increasingly noticeable on record, send shock-waves traipsing a headily combustible din of ecstasy and find sanctuary inside Gogol Bordello’s freakishly bizarre symphonic wizardry.
But while Gypsy Punks petered out a little towards the last few nebulous tracks, ‘07s mighty Super Taranta! (SideOneDummy), recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs, continually cuts like a jagged knife. Sharper violin snipes, starker accordion swipes, and bolder cymbal-skin strikes create a terrifically riotous volcanic eruption upon impact, refusing to relent from beginning to end.
“When we make a record, we’re not baking a cake with recipe in hand. A lot of what goes on is unconscious and maybe a stop at some gas station in Morocco a year ago had more to do with the sound than all the contemplative work,” Hutz says.
Overall, there’s a primary redemption theme that transverses the boastful secondary motif of conquering badly contrived popular minstrels with finer tuneful cuisine. For instance, “Harem In Tuscany” and the spherical title track are direct descendants of Italy’s bastardized musical exorcism, tarentella, a curative mystical ritual transforming negative energy into positive sought here as a therapeutic phenomenon aiding rapscallions nauseous with modern media-manipulated hysteria.
Concerning “Harem In Tuscany,” Hutz says, “If we read into the lyrics, it seems like the turmoil of some nonsensical journey, where a rebel forgets his cause and everything else, loses his perspective, and returns to the bottom of the bottom to regain it. Profound or not, it’s a simple reminder of the inability to accomplish something and hold on to it. It’s impossible. It requires constant reinvention. That’s the life.” He then concedes, “It also reminds me of other good things like the fact politicians could only be wrong!”
More conventional listeners will initially be smitten by well-received upheaval, “Ultimate,” a pungent flamenco-throbbed treatise spitefully alleging ‘there was never any good old days/ they are today/ they are tomorrow.’ Its easy-to-grasp revelry begs for contemporary airplay.
“It wasn’t written for the mainstream audience,” he admits. “But, if it reaches them, perhaps that’s reason for optimism. If more people are ready to re-tune into a pro-positive attitude and the high frequencies proposed in that song, the better for all of us. As far as commercialism goes, I have no idea how it reflects on us. We’ve come a long way on our own terms. Nobody tells us what to do and we’re going strong. Go figure. It’s fucked up. On one hand, we’ve always been going against the grain. On the other, we’re living proof of the American Dream.”
While “Ultimate” discontentedly abjures the arduous past and “Zina-Marina” prophesizes a downcast future, the question becomes where’ve all the good times gone?
Hutz claims, “Though the song “Ultimate” is about hidden positive meanings of life, “Zina-Marina” is a topical song – a guerrilla journalism story about Eastern Europe’s dark side, which is spreading rapidly west-wise. Obviously, there’s awareness about both sides of life. But as an engine, I choose to be optimistic. Not because I’m a fool. No. I’ve been jaded before. That’s exactly where I learned cynicism and pessimism are actually dead ends for the spirit. I respect spirit too much to suffocate it with pessimism.”
Let’s not overlook how Hutz and his fellow Ukrainians deal with serious sociopolitical problems in charmingly satirical fashion. Sarcastic humor has certainly gotten ex-Soviet proletariats through various uncompromising Third World predicaments (lack of funds, household goods, and raw material).
“That’s our survivalist way,” he declares. “Perhaps the words ‘Wild East’ already properly replace ‘ex-Iron Curtain region’ at this point. That, itself, reflects the situation a lot. Of course, as a native I have romantic sides I’m endlessly drawn to. But there’s just no way to get anything done there. I mean ‘anything,’ and I mean ‘done.’
Analogously, “Tribal Connection” gripes about a conservative village infringing on people’s rights, possibly a microcosm of America’s post-911 raid on individual freedoms and liberty.
Hutz adds, “The funny part about it all is that whatever political criticism occurs in our songs people automatically think it’s about the United States. But have you ever been to Sweden? As far as regulations go it is America times 100! This crudity is a worldwide tendency. It needs challenges from people with positive power from artists and generators of good energy. The good news is we’re everywhere, too!”
Getting further into the midst of Super Taranta, “Suddenly (I Miss Carpathy)” mutates into some kind of weirdly swinging Yiddish hat dance. The dazzling fast-fiddled dub-plated jubilation, “Forces Of Victory,” heaps speed metal axing atop slapdash drumming. And the festive “American Wedding,” augmented by the horn-drenched Slavic Soul Party and descending violin stabs, snubs quick-fix 24-hour North American connubiality, fancying instead, the three-day matrimonial galas his distant birthplace afforded.
Despite its dagger-like reggae-tinged seafaring ‘ho-ho-ho’ drunken chant, the conciliatory “Supertheory Of Supereverything” kicks dust in the face of misguided autocracy and pledges a ‘super-conducting’ alliance. Distrusting biblical disciples and agitated despots while relishing a heterogeneous united front, this purported coalition of party people rants, ‘Yes! Give me Everything Theory without Nazi uniformity/ my brothers are protons/ my sisters are neurons/ stir it twice it’s instant family.’ In summary, Gogol Bordello are allied phantoms conceiving a dungy all-inclusive circus atmosphere (usually not out of step for fandango dancing), with Hutz playing the leading role as askew carnival barker.
On another adjacent tip, Hutz has appeared onscreen in a commendable supportive role, landing the part of Alex for filmmaker Liev Schreiber’s Everything Is Illuminated, alongside award-winning actor Elijah Wood. The story line involves a post-adolescent Jewish American traveling from Odessa to Ukraine questing for a woman who had saved the grandfather of Wood’s character, Jonathan, from Nazi invasion.
The jaunty Hutz exclaims, “Liev must’ve been temporarily insane! But it all seemed to work out at the end. It was my music that brought me into it. He was interested in Gogol Bordello as soundtrack writers. But I just said, ‘yo man, give me the lead and I’ll fix it up for you real nice.’ He made a few phone calls and I was on my way to Hollywood. So in retrospect, we have a lot of laughs and stayed good friends…with more or less regular drinking assaults on the neighborhood”
Though Super Taranta!’s liquored-up dirge, “Alcohol,” could have served as an incisive drunkard’s tribute or hangover medication for the two sauced buddies, Hutz denies these assertions.
“I just wanted to write an ode to alcohol – something that shows real beauty of this substance and how important its presence is in our culture. But to write about that, you must really qualify. Otherwise, it’s just a banal topic. So I couldn’t go near it in my twenties, despite massive consumption. I felt like I still didn’t have the mileage required. But now, in my thirties, I felt qualified. It just rolled off the tongue and the music came in a second.”
During, albeit, limited downtime, Hutz archived a homespun tale of real life terror. The recent documentary entitled Pied Piper of Hutzovina dealt with fleeing Ukraine after the unfortunate Chernobyl mishap. Hutz promises it’s a strange film too personal for some and too devastating for others. But those who fetishize gypsy culture will find a natural Romany habitat sans typical soused stereotypes. Instructively, director Pavla Fleischer shared many heroic moments with Hutz in Ukraine, Hungary, Russia, and Syberia.
So the prospective artistic endeavors for Hutz seem almost infinite. Let’s hope he doesn’t sacrifice Gogol Bordello’s unrivaled musicality for cinematic celebrity.
“I’m thinking of inventing a new style of musical activity that can uncork the masses and become a form of not only physical expression, but also mental and spirit-wise. Like the Ukrainian mountain folklore of Kolomijkas – which is based on poking fun at one another with rhymes over infectious beats and manic tempos,” he insists. “That’s the premise of Mititika, a new electronic project I’m making with a Romanian singer and dancer. If I could transcend that feeling into a worldwide context with my fucked up synthesizers, it’ll be massively successful.”