Gogol Bordello: A multicultural musical melee
The 'gypsy-punk' band is garnering buzz, and fans, for its fiery blend of rock and gypsy music. Even Madonna is smitten.
New York — Everyone in the crowd at the Fillmore at Irving Plaza is hot but happy, arms draped around friends – and strangers. As the beat blares, they jump in unison. It's a scene one expects to see at a Pearl Jam show rather than a concert where two of the foremost instruments are an accordion and a violin. But Gogol Bordello, a gypsy-punk outfit that has improbably become something of an It Band, takes pride in stirring up some of the craziest live shows on earth.
On stage, accordion, violin, drums, bass, and electric guitar create a high-speed punk symphony, while two masked go-go girls run around playing on washboards, drums, and fire buckets. Above the fray, Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hütz – hard to miss in tight purple pants and pointy blue shoes – strums his guitar, dances, and sings lines such as, "There were never any good old days/ They are today, they are tomorrow."
"Every night people confess insane things about how [our music] affects them," Hütz said in an earlier interview. Some people, he adds, are "scared that it was the peak of their life at our show."
Gogol Bordello is touring relentlessly in America and Europe, playing five to six nights a week to promote its new album, "Super Taranta!" The disc melds the energy and social criticism of punk with the leg-kicking abandon and minor-key sensitivity of Eastern European gypsy music. "Super Taranta!" also introduces elements of reggae and tarantella, a hypnotically rapid Italian song and dance.
Eight years ago, when Gogol Bordello released its first album, "Voi-La Intruder," cynics wrote off the act as unmarketable and too ethnic. But thanks to restless touring, legendary live shows and several high-profile side projects – Hütz starred alongside Elijah Wood in the film "Everything Is Illuminated"; Gogol Bordello played on stage with Madonna at July's Live Earth concert – the band has exploded in the past few years.
"There was never a day when we played for 20 people and suddenly we started playing for 5,000," Hütz says. The band's popularity has, as he puts it, been growing slowly, "like a cat."
Gogol Bordello is often lumped with other bands that incorporate Eastern European sounds, such as DeVotchka, Balkan BeatBox, and Beirut. Hütz, however, sees his band as more legitimate, maintaining an "actual understanding and connection to the gypsy music."
The band has more in common with an international artist such as Manu Chao, not because they share a specific sound, but because both acts experiment with unpredictable stylistic juxtapositions. "The whole idea of culture," says Hütz, "is the ability to understand another culture."
Besides Hütz's mix of Ukranian and Romany blood, Gogol Bordello members are Russian, Israeli, Ethiopian, American, Taiwanese, and Chinese. "All members bring their own beauty," accordion player Yuri Lemeshev says in Russian.
Because his dad was a musician, Hütz always had a guitar in the house. He listened to his dad's tapes of The Doors, The Rolling Stones, and Russian bard Vladimir Vysotsky. He also developed a deep love for punk – bands like The Clash and The Stooges. After leaving Ukraine with his parents as a teen, Hütz spent two years in refugee camps in Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Italy. When the family arrived in Vermont in 1992, he pursued punk rock with a "doubled passion." Six years later, he moved to New York and formed Gogol Bordello.
The frontman's lyrics are mostly in English, but he occasionally throws in Russian and Romany. Rousing tunes intertwine aggravation about mindless consumerism with anecdotes of immigrant life in New York and world travel. "Zina-Marina," for instance, a song from the new album, initially seems like a rowdy party banger. But the track is about sex trafficking, told from the point of view of an Eastern European cop who's letting it happen. "The point was to make it scary," says Hütz.
Material like this is part of the band's unique allure, although Gogol Bordello's reputation is mostly one of stage prowess. Live shows draw a diverse crowd primed for boisterous, sweaty danceathons.
Hütz, referencing the gypsy tradition, says, "We not only preserved its fire. We made it more extreme."