Features, Print December 21, 2018

Gogol Bordello – An American Band Of Gypsies

by Kevin Johnston

Eugene Hütz’s beginnings were humble. A butcher’s son descendent from Servitka Roma Gypsies (known musicians and performers) he made his first guitar with his father out of plywood and his first distortion pedals out of radio parts. He and his family fled their home-town of Boyarka, Ukraine to avoid the Chernobyl Meltdown in 1986, arriving state-side in the early 90’s as a political refugees.

Today, he travels the US and the world with a band of musician immigrants, much like his ancestors would have, but his life now is a far cry from the days of plywood guitars. He’s worked with everyone from Madonna to Les Claypool, acting opposite Elijah Wood in 2005’s Everything Is Illuminated which features his band Gogol Bordello. 2019 will mark the 20th anniversary of Gogol Bordello’s debut album Voi-La Intruder (produced by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ drummer Jim Sclavunos, no less) and to commemorate, they’re playing a string of New Year’s Eve shows across Colorado this month, doing what they know how to do best: party.

Hütz is at a party, in fact, at NYC’s Mercury Lounge for his bandmate Boris Pelekh’s birthday celebration, a rock-show by Pelekh’s side project Hey Guy. He explains the Colorado run like this: “We gotta make the New York City – our girlfriend – jealous! We traditionally do a run of New Years shows and have a great history with Colorado. In our very first tours, that was one of the hotspots for us. I remember punching holes in the ceiling with my fists there. The usual, you know,” he grins.

Hütz and the proclaimed “Che Guevara” of Gypsy Punk, Sergey Ryabtsev

But the band’s 20-year milestone isn’t what’s significant, Hütz says. Rather, it’s staying true to himself, his ideals and his passions.

“There was never really a specific date when the band started,” Hütz says. “It just sort of snowballed. It’s simply what I do. Being a creative and continuing my creative path. I knew it would continue with one thing or another.”

And though Hütz is a prolific writer and multi-creative, the band has brought him the most recognition, doing so through the power of a vibrant, diverse group of performers.

“We always looked at the band in a way that people traditionally look at the bands back in Eastern Europe,” Hütz explains, “which is more of a group of friends. It’s a gang, you know. Luckily, the people that became core members of the gang are also phenomenal musicians; each in their own right.”

Hütz continues, “my idea of this band was along the lines of Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law. Everyone in that movie is a character and star in his own right. The movie’s plot is very loose – you just get these people together and allow for awesomeness to unfold. I wanted everyone to shine through with their own gusto and charisma.”

You can witness the group gusto at the four Colorado shows leading up to New Years Eve. Each member of the multicultural melange grandstands throughout, exuding practically nuclear energy. From Russian-born Pelekh’s dizzying solos to Pedro Erazo’s spitfire Ecuadorian rapping en Español, native Ethiopian Thomas Gobena’s rich, reggae bass and more, the whole band take the spotlight with a prowess that commands respect, invigorating Gogol’s crazy crowds.

Most fans define Gogol’s music as “Gypsy Punk,” and the giant banner at their shows literally reads as such. But it’s not that simple for Hütz. “Definition is a death mask,” he says. “But at the same time, Picasso had his blue period. It is a similar thing. Call it a banner that defines the origin of Gogol Bordello. Musically, we are kind of a box that never closes. A box with no roof. It continues to take dives and corners we don’t even see coming. And that’s how it should be!”

The band reissued classic records East Infection, Voi-La Intruder and Multi-Kontra Culti vs Irony earlier this year, with accompanying descriptions on their website, reading “heartaches of broken families, illegal border crossing, traumas of dislocation and deportation, chronicles of nomad life” in what is likely Hütz’ unique delivery. Yet the re-issues are not a reaction to the current immigration stories in the news.

“It would be pretty corny to try to commercialise that now that that’s the hot-button.” Hütz says. “Authenticity lies in being consistent and persistent and not wavering. Staying true to one’s expression. The songs of ours which seem to be most relevant now were just as relevant 5, 10 or 15 years ago.”

And so Hütz maintains focus on the passions of human struggle, but the passion of community too. “Our music brings a lot of people together,” he says. “It creates a community celebration where people look at each other in a better light. If you can go up on stage and genuinely make people’s eyes sparkle, they will take that charisma and look through those eyes at the world when they leave the concert – for a little while longer – and that is a pretty tangible contribution.”

Gogol Bordello perform at The Aggie in Fort Collins December 30, as well as The Ogden Theater in Denver December 28 and 29, and The Boulder Theater December 31. These shows promise to be – you guessed it – a party.