By Joshua Erickson
VANCOUVER — The story of Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hütz is one of the more fascinating, complex and deep stories in contemporary music, but it is one that tends to be overshadowed by the band’s reputation for wild, crazy, party-like shows. To understand Hütz’s backstory, you have to understand the rich, complex history of Eastern Europe and the struggles of the Romani people—also known as Roma Gypsies. Hütz himself has Roma ancestry on his mother’s side and it is his Ukrainian and Roma heritage that went on to influence his lifestyle and sound that eventually formed the basis of Gogol Bordello.
Born in the Ukraine in 1972, Hütz and family fled after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. His family lived in Russia for a short while, but were forced to leave and ended up travelling between temporary homes in Poland, Hungry, Austria, and Italy, before him and his family were accepted as political refugees into the United States in 1992. From a very young age, Hütz lived a gypsy lifestyle and found life in the United States hard to adjust to. He struggled to find an identity or a sense of “home” in the U.S. and eventually turned to his Roma gypsy roots to ground himself. After settling in New York, Hütz found acceptance and a sense of belonging in the punk scene there, and eventually the sense of “home” he had been longing for was found, a desire Hütz feels many people around the world share.
“I think that’s kinda how people want to feel. Whats the opposite? Anxiety? Paranoia? Whats the other alternatives? No, it’s to feel home, y’know,” say Hütz with his thick Ukrainian accent while speaking over the phone during a cab ride in Rio De Janeiro.
This then spurred an idea in Hütz’s mind. Why not mix the worlds of gypsy and punk together and see what happens. “I was feeling pretty home in New York. And now that we are home, lets turn it into a real fun house. It’s like, now that we are home in New York, lets get on a table and blast The Stooges Fun House at full volume and see what we can do on top of that,” says Hütz with an energetic laugh.
And thus, Gogol Bordello was born. The band performed their first show in 1998 as a two piece, and Hütz had it in his mind that he was going to sneak Eastern European/ Gypsy culture into North America through punk music. Looking back on it now though, he sees the pieces were all set up for him to knock down.
“I think the tendencies were already there. It was sort of a spring time in people’s minds. People were hungry in all parts of the world to get to know [Eastern Europe/ gypsy culture] better. Everybody was sick of Cold War. And they kind of warmed up to us.”
Over the years, the band grew in size (typically between 7-10 members) and recognition and in 2005 released their seminal album Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike. Now, 10 years later, Hütz is taking the band on the road, performing the album in its entirety this fall and bringing a few old friends along for the ride.
“It’s really about the creative chemistry of that bubble of a particular time. Two of the original members from that time are back on this tour. Pamela Racine [percussion, vocals, dancing] and Elliot Fergusson [drums]… When we started it was just a singer/ songwriter situation. Then it became a trio. Then it took us up until, like, 2005 to have a full line up. It was becoming. It was becoming what it is…” Hütz trails off as he begins arguing with the cab driver over cab fare. He apologizes after getting out of the cab and continues, “So, it was becoming! And for Gypsy Punks we all looked at each other and went ‘it became!’” he says beaming with laughter.
The success of Gypsy Punks brought Gogol Bordello to the world’s stage and the band quickly found themselves playing much larger venues and on the main stage at some of the world’s biggest music festivals. As the band travelled the world, Hütz fell in love with Brazil and in 2008, made the permanent move to Rio De Janeiro. With the band’s success though, people began looking to Hütz as a sort of cultural ambassador. A role he has never been comfortable with.
“I don’t have any role! I’m largely disinterested in playing any role. It’s just me. It’s who I am. And y’know, we all have a certain tragic story in life and—look, I was born in Ukraine. New York City is my home home home. And I’ve been living in Rio De Janeiro for the past seven years. So—it’s like, all these places are very important. I might as well go back to Ukraine and be the ambassador for Brazil,” he explains with a laugh. “Chronologically, it’s the way story goes but really its all just colours of the rainbow. The most important thing in life is not to play any role, but just do your own thing. Whatever it is. Find your track. Follow your track but don’t get into any ‘role,’ or people will try to hand you over.”
While Hütz’s origin story may not be given the full attention it deserves in the press, their live show really is a spectacle you must witness in person. They are only doing this Gypsy Punks tour once as well, so don’t miss out. And make sure that you are wearing purple!
Gogol Bordello performs at the Commodore Ballroom on November 21 & 22.BC, British Columbia, Commodore Ballroom, Gogol Bordello