Tipsy Gypsies

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.

"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.

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John La Briola