Gogol Bordello doesn’t take the stage; they take over the stage. They dominate crowds with their blistering mix of punk, roots reggae, dub, metal, rap, flamenco, klezmer, salsa and Italian spaghetti western twang, anchoring it all in a muscular Gypsy rhythm that sounds like an Eastern European cousin of ska. “My inspiration comes from Ukrainian Gypsy culture, which is obvious in the politics of the band,” says bandleader and frontman Eugene Hütz. “The root of the music is a straight Gypsy two step beat, with a brutal bass line that resonates with lovers of reggae—but there’s a difference between adapting and assimilating. Gypsies adapt to any new found home, but we reject assimilation and never lose our identity. We may tell our story in English, but it remains what it is—that cultural revolution is a contagious state of mind.” Gogol Bordello also has a unique fashion sense, with a wardrobe that looks like the result of an explosion in an Eastern European thrift store. Stripes, plaids and camouflage clash with spangles, fringes, capes, berets, baseball caps and a forest of facial hair.
The band’s members span ages, races and cultures. Bassist Thomas Gobena is from Ethiopia, 60-year-old Russian fiddler Sergey Rjabtzev was a theater director in Moscow, Hong Kong-born Elizabeth Sun sings backup and plays percussion, and drummer Oliver Charles is of Trinidadian, Italian and Swedish descent. The band’s passionate intercultural style may borrow from music from all over the world, but they have their own instantly identifiable sound. “Our sound is intense trans-global rebel rock, not light-headed, world fusion pop shit,” Hütz says forcefully. “We are the vanguard of a rebel intelligence that looks at the world in a new way, at a time when everything seems to be arriving at a trans-global, or maybe even a trans-galactic, understanding.”
Hütz put Gogol Bordello together in New York City in 1999, after leaving the Ukraine in the aftermath of Chernobyl. In the Ukraine, Hütz made money selling American girlie magazines and punk rock cassettes smuggled into the country. The band’s endless touring and over-the-top shows have made them international headliners, despite outspoken, political songs like “Think Locally, Fuck Globally.” They’re now taking aim at the mainstream with Trans-Continental Hustle, produced by star maker Rick Rubin, currently the head of Columbia Records.
Rubin was turned on to the band by former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. “Rick started talking to me about music after a show,” Hütz explains. “We began hanging out and listening to music. He asked me to play him the new songs I was writing. He pointed out ways I could become a better craftsman. A musician goes through two stages. When you’re young, it’s your weapon for getting girls and bottles. When you decide music is your life, you want to write songs that speak of maturity, with good melodies and timeless qualities. It was time to make that transition. With Rick’s help, all of the classic Gogol Bordello qualities are preserved, but we moved into another caliber as a band.”
Trans-Continental Hustle was recorded live in the studio, with Rubin’s expertise bringing out the band’s broad sonic palette. “My acoustic guitar-playing is the glue of our sound, but it never showed up on record before. I let it be drowned in the mix. This time, you can hear the guitar bringing the swing. Rick also opened the band’s ears so we could listen to each other better, which helped us be more comfortable in the studio.”
A few years ago, Hütz moved to Brazil to be closer to his girlfriend. The music of his new homeland infuses the sound of Trans-Continental Hustle, but not in an obvious way. “There’s no bossa nova,” Hütz states. “My Brazilian experience is anti-touristic. Pernambuco, in Brazil’s Northeast, has a style called frevo that’s amazing. ‘In the Meantime in Pernambuco’ is in that style. The Brazilian Gypsy community, which has become like family to me, inspired ‘Uma Menina, Uma Cigana.’ After a period of bonding, they told me, ‘If you have babies, don’t worry about going on tour. While you’re away, we’ll raise them for you.’ That kind of welcoming is stirring.”
Travel Advisory: If you’re interested in visiting the original Hütz homeland of Ukraine, the singer has these tips: “Avoid Kiev. The real music and culture is in the western mountains around L’viv and, for an unruly good time, go to Odessa, a port town like New Orleans and Napoli. It’s Ukraine’s Rio.”
- J. Poet
For more info visit: www.gogolbordello.com