Gogol Bordello: Music from 'Gypsy Punks' Gogol Bordello mixes punk, ska and jazz with the traditional music of the Roma people. Band members bring their Eastern European roots and instruments to NPR's Studio 4A for a performance chat.

Gogol Bordello: Music from 'Gypsy Punks'

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This is the sound of gypsy punk. At least gypsy punk is what Eugene Hutz calls it. His band, Gogol Bordello, mixes punk thrash with the traditional gypsy or Roma music Hutz heard from his family as a child in Ukraine. You may have seen Hutz before. He played the linguistically creative translator Alex in the movie Everything Is Illuminated. When he's not acting, Hutz is traveling with Gogol Bordello's two Russians, two Israelis, one Thai-American, one Chinese-Scott and one unhyphenated American.

Mr. EUGENE HUTZ (Gogol Bordello): And one Ecuadorian Inca-Indian, too.

ELLIOTT: There you go. Eugene Hutz joins me now in NPR's Studio 4A along with violinist Sergey Ryabtsev and accordionist Yury Lemeshev. Hello, gentlemen, thanks for being here.

Unidentified Man: What's happening. Thank you.

Unidentified Man: Thank you for having us.

ELLIOTT: So, Eugene, I'd like to start with you. Now, you have an interesting life story. Your family left after the Chernobyl accident?

Mr. HUTZ: Yes, we left because everybody wants to escape the high dosage of radiation, wouldn't you?

ELLIOTT: Where did you go?

Mr. HUTZ: To Carpathia. The Romanian side of my family, which is from Carpathian region, which is where Ukraine, Romania and Hungary meet. It's quite a cultural microcosm. There is really no predominant ethnicity there. There is Russians, Ukrainians, Ruthenians, Slovak, Hungarians. (Unintelligible) of many different tribes, different kind of gypsies. And I really loved it as a kid. You know, no wonder I like it in New York City, it was kind of my first New York City or something like that.

ELLIOTT: Can you play for us a traditional song from your childhood, just to give us a sense of that?

Mr. HUTZ: Sure. I guess, since I was talking about Carpathia before, there was a song that always stuck in my head as a kind of a extremely raucous number that I remember from the weddings in Carpathia. It's called (speaking foreign language) dying after you. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song)

ELLIOTT: So I'm dancing with you at a wedding, listening to that. Now how do you take that moment and make it punk?

Mr. HUTZ: You don't, it already is. Just a song about a girl, really. You know, about dying and following a girl endlessly. (Speaking foreign language). After you, and dying after you. And I heard it twice in Ukrainian weddings in Carpathia. And Ukrainian music is pretty wild as it is. But that always tops it, you know? I mean, gypsy musicians is always kind of invited to top the party and kind of make the ultimate haywire, go nuts, bonkers, buck wild. So that's just that kind of material, you know, that I think after that I always felt like I was stricken by some kind of lightening. Enchanted by it, and so I wanted to take it farther to other people and make them feel like they've been stricken by lightening now.


Mr. HUTZ: It's nice to be hammered in the brain. But my experience with music didn't start with this or, I kind of took it over from my dad, who was a musician. He was the guy with the guitar who was chasing all the girls. You know, I grew up to sounds of Jimi Hendrix, in particular the Band Of Gypsies record. It has nothing to do with the fact that it calls Band of Gypsies, I didn't know what it calls, actually, until I moved here, because we had it on a tape. But that record, I probably heard it about ten thousand times by the age I was five. So here I come, you know? And...

ELLIOTT: So your dad had all this bootleg Western music?

Mr. HUTZ: Yeah. He was friends with some of the African students who were studying in Kiev. And from them, we got a lot of Parliament Funkadelic and, which is actually one of the main influences in Gogol Bordello that nobody realizes. You know?

ELLIOTT: Your latest album is called Gypsy Punk. I kind of looked at it and thought, hmm, gypsy punk. I don't know what gypsy punk is. I'm wondering if our listeners do. How would you describe it to people?

Mr. HUTZ: Well, it is what it is, you know what I mean? If it would be a Brazilian drum and bass about agricultural, with elements of agricultural trip-hop, from Uruguay, I would describe it like that. But it ain't that. So that's why it's called Gypsy Punk.

ELLIOTT: Do you call yourself a gypsy punk?

Mr. HUTZ: Well, it's basically my autobiography, right there. In our band, we are not trying to play traditional gypsy music, simply because it's been done by masters to the degree that can never be out-schooled. We're of a younger generation and the kind of, you know, emotional message of this music is very much connected with the emotional message of other music that appears from social unrest, as reggae or as punk, on the intersection of these styles, that's really where we operate.

ELLIOTT: So tell me about your name, Gogol Bordello. Now, Gogol was a writer from...

Mr. HUTZ: The Ukraine.

ELLIOTT: The Ukraine, just like you. Who wrote sort of these surreal novels. Was he a part of your influence as well?

Mr. HUTZ: Yeah. I mean it was more than influence. I mean, it was kind of a emblematic figure in a lot of ways. I think that work of Gogol took Ukrainian culture at the times when it was basically forbidden in Ukraine in the 19th century, and put it in European literary spotlight.

It was a kind of a smuggling operation. And a lot of literary critics could not really realize what was the secret for that magic. The magic was is that he actually dissected language to the point where he wrote in Ukrainian with Russian words, so to speak. You know, so I thought that something like that is ahead of Gogol Bordello, where we're gonna have to smuggle in our music to the English speaking world. Not because we're such ungrateful immigrants that want to bulldoze over everything that's here. But because, you know, we want to make things exciting when they're not.

ELLIOTT: Do you have a song that can illustrate that for me?

Mr. HUTZ: I think all of our songs illustrate that.

ELLIOTT: What about Avenue B?

Mr. HUTZ: Sure, it's actually one of the, I'd say, calmer songs, but nonetheless, it is about musical, political and sociological arguments. So here it goes.

(Soundbite of song)

ELLIOTT: Gogol Bordello playing Avenue B...

Mr. HUTZ: That's (unintelligible)!

ELLIOTT: ...here in Studio 4A. So in a lot of your songs, including that one, I hear so much going on. There's even like this reggae beat somewhere in there.

Mr. HUTZ: Uh-huh.

ELLIOTT: And a lot of your songs you go into different languages.

Mr. HUTZ: That's just the way it is. I mean if song comes out in three different languages, so be it, you know what I mean. I mean you don't get into rock and roll so you can start following some instructions, you know, or restrictions. And there's a lot of people like us. I mean the world has changed so much over the past years. I wasn't born speaking four languages, but here I come, I do now.

ELLIOTT: Eugene Hutz, Sergey Ryabtsev and Yury Lemeshev are just a small part of the multi-cultural mash-up that is Gogol Bordello. To hear more of the band, go to our website, npr.org.

Gentleman, thank you for joining us.

Mr. HUTZ: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Unidentified Man: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: And now, would you play us out?

(Soundbite of song)

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