You see your gypsy
Gogol Bordello roams with fellow Roma and beats the marketing boneheads
New York City Gypsy-punk outfit Gogol Bordello may be the most exciting live band in America. So much so that nobody here has a clue how to market them.
The band explodes on stage with a powerful sound, blending supercharged Gypsy two-step rhythms (it’s like an Eastern European cousin of ska) with flamenco, punk, rap, roots reggae and odd time signatures adopted from Balkan wedding music. Oren Kaplan’s rowdy, shredding guitar speaks to punks and rockers, but it’s Yury Lemeshev’s accordion and the incendiary fiddling of Sergey Ryabtsev that gives the band its global vibe. Their international outlook makes them unique in stateside arenas, but group leader and charismatic frontman Eugene Hütz, who was born in Ukraine, doesn’t consider the sound unusual.
“Our stylistic mash-up is only rare in America,” Hütz said in a recent interview. “In Europe, people like Manu Chao have been [mixing genres] for decades. Our musical awareness isn’t based on flirtatious moments of musical fusion. Our root is Gypsy music from the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine, an organic mix of Hungarian, Romanian and klezmer music that’s been remixed by generations of musicians that lived and died there. Then I look for styles that complement that root. In the U.S., there’s too much commercial pressure on music. At the end of the day it comes down to: ‘Are the songs good or not?’ ”
Hütz called out an American tendency to regard art and music with suspicion. “I was at a gathering of radio and TV promoters to do some interviews,” he recalled, “and I heard someone say, ‘Gogol Bordello is great. They have Eugene and the girl dancers on stage, but how can we market Sergey?’ That kind of thinking is incredible. Sergey is one of the greatest Gypsy violin players alive.”
Hence, “How Do We Market Sergey?” has become the unofficial name of the band’s current tour.
“Believe it or not,” Hütz went on, “they want us to give this great violinist another name to present him in the States. In a way, I’m glad they can’t figure out how to market us. We had to figure it out ourselves, but nobody held a gun to our head to make us play such a crazy kind of fucking music. We beat all the marketing boneheads at their own game by promoting ourselves.”
Hütz has the same energy in interviews that makes his stage presence so fierce. He’s especially passionate about giving Gypsy music and culture a higher profile. After the tour with Primus that brings Gogol Bordello to the Memorial Auditorium on Sunday, Hütz heads for Russia to finish an album and tour with the Kolpakov Trio’s Sasha Kolpakov, who hails from the same Gypsy tribe as Hütz’s own ancestors.
“I’m making an album with him, Know Your Gypsy Rights, for the Gypsy community,” Hütz said. “Since it’s not going to be widely marketed, we’re taking our time. It’s a freestyle hip-hop Gypsy fusion.”
Hütz is also the focal point of a documentary, The Pied Piper of Hützovina. But it’s not all about him. “It gives you the big picture of Gypsy life in Hungary, Ukraine, Russia and Siberia,” Hütz said of the film. To make it, filmmaker Pavla Fleisher followed Hütz to Ukraine in 2005, filming his search for the extended family he left behind when fleeing the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. “She didn’t know anything about Gypsies and came with me to learn,” he recalled. “People usually set out with an idea about what a documentary is going to be like, but she had no clue. It was a challenging experience for her and the film connects the dots, joining different aspects of gypsy culture—from its manifestations in elite society all the way down to the musicians and activists in the ghetto.” And now, of course, in the American concert halls.