By Jim Schutze
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As a Croatian-American electro-funk DJ with a powerful thirst for liquor and trouble, I knew I'd like Gogol Bordello from the moment I heard about the group. The act's pulsing Mediterranean sound and sljivovica-drenched stage presence have found eager listeners from around the globe. Gogol centers around frontman Eugene Hütz, who first assembled a motley crew of Eastern European expats (himself a refugee from the Ukraine and the Chernobyl disaster) from various New York City bars and loft parties in the late '90s. At the time, Hütz was DJing an eclectic set of Gypsy, flamenco, and other outernational sounds with the punk-rock mentality of his youth. As is typical with do-it-yourself genius, there was a void, and some upstart filled it. Gogol Bordello burst upon the N.Y.C. scene with a drunken, all-night party drawing on Hütz's itinerant background and love of rebel cultures. In Gogol's world, manic punk energy meets tribal drums as a dub bass line thumps along and accordion lines flutter above like hummingbirds over the Danube. Typical of the downtrodden throughout history, the group flips a bleak existence into a party: "We gonna turn frustration into inspiration/Whatever demons are there, we gonna set 'em free/Such is the method of tribal connection/Of our fun-loving restless breed," sings Hütz on the group's latest album, Super Taranta! Through his impassioned delivery and earthy accent, Hütz's message of unity through music strikes a nerve. Using Hütz's lyrics and melodies and a producer who's worked with Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, the band fleshed out the 14 tracks of Super Taranta! in a barn/studio where Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones once recorded. Bass player Thomas Gobena says creating Super Taranta! was an "incredible experience." He adds, "[Producer] Victor [Van Vugt] is incredible, man. He comes with great experience and he has a beautiful ear. He's not threatened by different-sounding music, different ideas."
Gogol draws on all its influences without watering anything down—which isn't surprising for a band that cites the Dead Kennedys, Tom Waits, and Romanian Gypsies Taraf de Haidouks as its favorite listening. The title track to Super Taranta! is a wandering masterpiece featuring Russian Sergey Rjabtzev's violin wailing out a bittersweet celebration of life. "American Wedding" is a frantic tale of cultural exchange, while "Wanderlust King" is a stomping opus of the road. "By the time we get to the studio, we don't want to do a lot of overdubs or anything," says Gobena. "We try to capture [the sound as] live as possible."
Ah, yes, the live show. That's where Gogol Bordello must be experienced to really feel the true energy of the band. "Oh my goodness," exclaims the freshman bass player of the group's performances. "Absolute insanity! Debauchery, big time! There's no reason why we can't party and actually say something important." Unity, between cultures, between music, no matter how apparently disparate, is the theme here. "You know, the makeup of the band itself—we all come from different parts of the world—and to meet together and make music, it sort of shows the people this is possible," Gobena says. "Diversity is something that we celebrate."
When not igniting stages and festivals worldwide, Hütz and crew keep busy. He and bandmate Oren Kaplan organize benefits for Romany (Gypsy) camps, and their side project, J.U.F. (Jewish-Ukrainishe Freundschaft), is at work on a Balkan reggaetón album. Add the constant collaborations with fellow New York/Eastern European alchemists Balkan Beat Box and Slavic Soul Party, plus Hütz's movie appearances (Everything Is Illuminated, The Pied Piper of Hutzovina), and it's a wonder the band has a minute to withstand the rigors of touring. "Music is the cure for everything, man," says Gobena with obvious awe. "Like, more than you would believe." The Bordello is open, and we're all invited to join the rumpus.