Welcome to Left of the Dial, I bring you the music because the radio won’t. This band comes to you from Ukraine, Russia, China, Scotland, Ethiopia, Israel and Ecuador. This is the story of Gogol Bordello.
One of the greatest things about music is that it’s a universal language that transcends cultural boundaries. You can learn a lot about the cultures of certain cultures just by examining its music, and there are countries that are synonymous with particular sounds. Who can think of Scotland without hearing bagpipes? Who can think of central Africa without hearing tribal drums? Who can listen to a didgeridoo without thinking about Australia? The point I’m making is that music is an integral part of every culture. When immigrants started flooding to America in the mid 1800’s, they brought their native traditions with them, amongst them music. This lead to lots of overlap and crossover influence, which in turn lead to the creation of Americana folk, which evolved into several genres and sub-genres, most notably rock and roll. Rock and roll became a major catalyst for foreign musicians to integrate their culture into their music. In the case of Gogol Bordello, they infused Gypsy music with punk, giving us a raucous sound that shows us that you’ve never really partied until you partied with an Eastern European.
Gogol Bordello is the brainchild of Ukrainian frontman Eugene Hutz. His mother was half Roma and his father was the guitarist for one of Ukraine’s first rock bands. Naturally he had an early interest in music, being influenced by Russian poets and songwriters and learning English through his musical “mentors” like Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and the Pogues. In 1986 his family fled Ukraine after the Chernobyl disaster and spent the next several years living in refugee camps in Poland, Austria, Hungary and Italy. During this time, Hutz experienced the immigrant lifestyle firsthand and was exposed to the cultures of every country he went to, which is heavily reflected in his songwriting. However, it was his Romani heritage that became his biggest influence.
Hutz moved to New York in 1993 and formed a punk band called the Fags, which would later evolve into Gogol Bordello. Members came and went over the years but they eventually settled with a core lineup that incleded guitarist Oren Kaplan, accordionist Yuri Lemeshev, and fiddler Serjey Ryabtzev. They spent their first couple years playing strictly Gypsy music at Russian weddings, but their performances became more theatrical and lively thanks to Ryabtzev’s experience as a play director in Moscow. While their first two albums never went anywhere, the band developed a huge following in New York’s underground scene, which lead to a contract with Side One Dummy Records.
The first album produced from that contract was 2005’s Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike. During this time they expanded their lineup by adding bassist Tommy Gobena and dancers Elizabeth Sun and Pam Racine. While the band’s music was always a clash of cultures, this solidified their signature mixture of Gypsy music, Slavic folk, and punk rock that documented the everyday struggles of an immigrant in a new world, particularly on songs like “Immigrant Punk” and “Think Locally Fuck Globally”. But my favorite song on the album is their first single, the party crashing ode to insanity “Start Wearing Purple”, which will have everyone in the house stomping so hard that the house will start shaking. In 2005, Eugene Hutz also starred alongside Elijah Wood in the movie Everything Is Illuminated, the true story of Jonathan Foer’s journey to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather during the Holocaust. The band made a cameo and contributed “Start Wearing Purple” to the soundtrack, which helped boost their profile.
In 2007 they released Super Taranta!, which expanded on their music by throwing dub, reggae, flamenco, and Italian folk into the mix. Their energy remains kinetic and they stick to what they know best. While some of the songs on Gypsy Punk were lyrically heavy-handed despite being incredibly infectious, Super Taranta! lightens up the mood by throwing the biggest damn Gypsy jam you’ve ever been to with fun songs about traveling the world (“Wonderlust King”), nostalgia (“Suddenly I Miss Carpaty”), and have how Slavic weddings are so much better than American weddings (“American Wedding”).
Gogol Bordello’s profile only grew over time, thanks to constant touring across America and Europe, playing countless festivals, opening for acts like Primus, Flogging Molly, Cake, and even performing with Madonna at Live Earth. Eventually they caught the attention of mega-producer Rick Rubin, who signed them to his label and produced the album Trans-Continental Hustle. Mostly inspired by Eugene Hutz’s time spent in Brazil (where he currently resides), they continue their tradition of brazen cultural genre merging and socially aware lyrics on songs like “Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher)”, and “Raise The Knowledge”. They even get to show off their romantic side with ballads like “Sun Is on My Side” and “When Universes Collide”.
Needless to say, Gogol Bordello is a band that really stands out. Deeply rooted in tradition yet surprisingly modern, constantly crossing borders and spearheaded by one of the most energetic frontmen in recent memory, they’ve certainly etched their spot in the musical landscape. Having been recognized by the likes of Madonna, Tom Morello and Les Claypool, relentlessly touring and bringing their extravagant live performances, they’re one act that can’t be missed. For more information and tour dates, check out this website. http://www.gogolbordello.com/ This has been Left of the Dial, I bring you the music because the radio won’t.