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Tipsy Gypsies

Gogol Bordello combines Balkan folk traditions with a theater of anarchy

When Gogol Bordello's Eugene Hütz was 14 and living in Striy, a small Ukrainian village near the Hungarian border, he caught wind of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown while listening to BBC Radio. Moments later, he and his family were packing their suitcases and preparing to flee.

"I'm trying to think very hard which records I should take with me out of the thousand that I own," Hütz recalls of his once-extensive black-market collection. "I had a record of the Stooges. I had a reggae record, a compilation of dub. I had a record of Einstürzende Neubauten. I had also TAF -- a German punk band -- and, of course, some other records with Gypsy music and more Eastern European type of folk. Back then, I didn't really worry about anything. Nothing like that ever happened. There's no readymade reaction to go with it. Plus, you can't see the danger. It's just in air."

As imperceptible as the deadly radiation was the uncertainty that faced Hütz and his family for the next three years. Descendants of Gypsies called the Sirva Roma (a tribe known for its blacksmiths, pottery makers and musicians), they found themselves wandering throughout Poland, Hungary, Austria and Italy with countless other misplaced souls, bouncing from one refugee camp to the next.

Think vampire lore, live birds, Go-Gogol girls and polka revved up to the breaking point, and you've got Gogol Bordello.
Think vampire lore, live birds, Go-Gogol girls and polka revved up to the breaking point, and you've got Gogol Bordello.

"The biggest hardship of immigration is that you deal with incredibly monotonous periods of nothing happening, just basically sitting on a suitcase, waiting for your documents -- which rapidly changed into people coming into your room in the night, saying that you have to split, the train is here. And the next thing you know, you have to move to another camp. This monotonous irregularity fucking kills after a while," he says. "The only great thing about it was it turned me into a street performer. In Italy you could play freely in the street. It's allowed, with no licenses or anything. And since we had guitars, it pushed me to earning money on a street. To play in the streets in America, it's this whole fuckin' pain in the dick."

A seasoned busker with a headful of ideas, Hütz arrived in Vermont in 1993 through a relocation program. Joining him were his mother, a Gypsy tap dancer/singer, and his father, a butcher by trade who also played guitar in one of the Ukraine's first rock bands. "It's the last place where I wanted to go," Hütz says of the Green Mountain State. "Once I saw Sonic Youth in 1988 in Kiev, all I wanted to do is be in New York."

Following a missed audition with James Chance and the Commotions in the Big Apple, Hütz met guitarist Vlad Solofar and squeezebox player Sasha Kazatchkoff at a wedding gig in 1996. The three soon formed Flying Fuck, an early prototype for what would finally become Gogol Bordello, a Gypsy-driven collective of multinational punk music and cabaret theater. California drummer Eliot Ferguson soon joined, and after Vlad and Sasha left, violinist Sergey Rjabtzev and accordionist Yuri Lemeshev entered the ranks. A pair of Israelis -- guitarist Oren Kaplan and saxophonist Ori Kaplan (no relation) -- fill out the current six-piece lineup.

Celebrating Slavic street culture in all its loutish, hyperkinetic glory, Gogol Bordello exudes pleasure and vulgarity with an amusingly hostile edge. It combines foot-stomping rhythms, chunky grooves and minor-key melodies into something of a defector's field shout. Think of polka revved up to the breaking point with screeching guitars and fiddle-playing that could make a stone weep. Think of vampire lore, Tuvan throat singers, live birds and taxidermy converging in the name of spectacle. On stage, Go-Gogol girls Susan Donaldson and Pam Racine tread the boards in colorful costumes, alternating as tragic Russian beggars, dancing ghost-dolls and sexy, uniformed border police who confiscate Hütz's passport, tear the pages out and tie him up shirtless with his own microphone cable.

"I've gone through zillions of phases of industrial music and playing in hardcore bands and being a dancehall reggae DJ," says Hütz. "So I need something that is gonna put it all together. And Gogol Bordello is this thing where I can do acting and music writing and music performing and just really plain freaking out. Our music is radical and risky, but I also think that that's exactly what needs to be done now. The culture of musical experience seems to be deteriorating. Extreme music -- it always has universal appeal. And that's kind of the purpose of our music. It's an alarming mixture of stuff that so many people already tried to define. Right now we call it immicore -- that's immigrant core."

A fearless front man who growls and babbles with abandon, Hütz possesses something of an innate gift for trashing venues. After six shots of Stoli chased by a Molotov cocktail, he might inspire good-natured groping or the shattering of dinner plates. All of the band's energetic sabotage has led even a hallowed dump like New York's CBGB -- once regarded as the American punk mecca -- to regard the Gogol gang as more migraine than it's worth.

"Listen, CBGB is a tourist store," Hütz says. "They should be selling Ramones dolls there at this point. The energy of nihilism and innovation doesn't necessarily live in CBGB. We got banned from tons of clubs in New York. We were forced into exploring Bulgarian, Russian and Greek clubs -- which was actually great, because these people, their owners, were enjoying all this chaos and debauchery. Culturally, they're very prepared for it. They've been exposed to a lot of broken plates. In American clubs, we wind up with a whole lot of trouble talk afterwards. In a Greek club, we would wind up with the owner himself dancing with a tablecloth on his head. The party would go on until seven in the morning."

A tireless entertainer, Hütz has been known to turn handsprings down the length of a bar, extinguish cigarettes on his bare chest or drink hot candle wax with relative disregard. His behavior is as much inspired by the punks of the late '70s as by the golden era of silent films.

"Charlie Chaplin was the only American artist to be shown on Soviet television, because he was a commie sympathizer," Hütz says. "As a kid, I could not help but fall in love with the whole psychotic action that he was putting on. His movies were quite violent, actually. They had a lot of brutal acrobatics. He also was the first guy in American cinematography to kick a cop on camera, which is a real scandal move. Later on, he made whole films of just beating up fuckin' whole divisions of cops! The next great thing [compared] to that that I ever saw was actually a bootleg video recording of an Iggy Pop show. The whole complete oblivious kind of cathartic mayhem was pretty interrelated."

The eruption of pent-up, socially unacceptable emotions permeates Multi Kontra Culti vs. Irony, Gogol Bordello's new disc. Despite its cumbersome title, the album -- a follow-up to Voi-La Intruder, the band's 1999 debut -- finds Hütz and company making an impassioned rally cry for the joining of counterculture energies. Sing-alongs like "Let's Get Radical" take it a step further by boiling down human interaction to what Hütz regards as its most useful component: "Let's get radical / And not sporadical / Not ironic / Sardonic / Catatonic / Ceremonic / But radical."

"The most fertile, significant part of the culture is always in the underground, in the ghetto," Hütz says. "Old kinds of Gypsy music, just because of the way these people live, is really the underdog music. It's rooted in poverty and traveling. And this is people who are not really desired to be part of society anywhere. People don't really know what the fuck Gypsies are. There are so many kinds. You think America is the only melting pot? The Eastern bloc is even more of a melting pot. You got 15 republics in Russia alone. Then you got Yugoslavia, which is ten different ethnicities. It's perpetual war zone -- it never settles down.

"Right now there are, especially, many creative immigrant forces," Hütz continues. "I think it's very promising, because America is very known for being kind of conceited and monolithic and really unexposed to music in any other language up until this day. The East took a lot from the West. But in same time, America is already exhausted at this point. So for it to really grow culturally, it needs influences from abroad. And I don't mean some stupid fuckin' Latin-pop invasion or some new crappy British invasion that really doesn't bring anything new. It just needs some new kind of chaos. It needs a lotta chaos. It needs complete Balkanization."

Weaned as he was on magic and serendipity, it's little wonder that this tipsy Gypsy from the East village might regard the current global conglomerate as little improvement over the feudal misery of the Dark Ages.

"I'm alarmed about the fact that there's this big kind of movement of sameness that's in the world now, not only in America," says Hütz. "It's like you land in any airport, and it's kind of full of same crap. It's not even the same crap of different brand. It's like same brand of the same crap. I think our part is presenting people with something that's so drastically different, that it's gonna play against the program of fucking sameness.

"In a way I feel that our music, our immicore, is like a matador," Hütz adds. "And America is this big bully -- uh, bull -- this kind of thing that wants to get the matador. But we are good matadors. Now that I'm big and strong, I can take on the whole America. I'm ready to be the matador and tease this fuckin' big bully. Now that I'm all tall and strong and big and wide in the shoulders."

Slight in his threadbare suit and purple wing tips, Hütz seems an unlikely catalyst for the new cultural revolution. But this death-obsessed wanderer, who survived life behind the iron curtain at the height of the cold war, is getting rave reviews from the East Coast press and beyond. In March, an invitation to perform at the 2002 Whitney Museum Biennial led to national exposure on NPR and The Charlie Rose Show. And no matter where the next wave takes him, Hütz seems content to ride it out sight unseen.

"The third album is gonna have more New York influence," he predicts. "And I don't mean like the fuckin' Strokes or some bullshit like that. It's more like some nasty, ghetto-fuck music when you get into a Puerto Rican car service. Like if you take a Puerto Rican cab. They always play this nasty, crude dancehall shit. Then you get out of the cab and you go to Punjabi restaurant and hear bangra, which is Indian movie music, which is another kind of bordello music. So I think we're gonna be moving towards circumcision, wedding and baptizing in the same type of spirit with these ghetto-fuck musics of New York.

"I think that our music is generally exciting for anybody who likes crazy shit," Hütz concludes. "We play super music. If you really just want to sit down and think about a whole lot of stuff, you can do that to our music. If you want to swing from a chandelier and go completely nuts, you can do that. And if you fuckin' want to go home, you can do that, too. But most people prefer swinging from the chandelier."

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