‘It’s simply one huge musical bundle,’ says Eugene Hutz, leader of Gogol Bordello, coming to Toronto on Aug. 19 and 20.
Special To The Star,
Published on Mon Aug 19 2013
Tarantellas, polonaises, tangos and waltzes — spouting healthy blasts of accordion and violin — rarely factor into any popular rock ’n’ roll configuration these days, and that suits Eugene Hutz just fine.
For nearly 14 years since they emerged from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he’s been the catalyst behind Gogol Bordello: a motley and boisterous octet that spouts a volcanic concoction of heavily ethnic folk tradition and modern pop world music. Whether it’s live or on record, it sounds something like a jubilantly festive family wedding celebration being held aboard a pirate ship, as it’s being tossed and pounded by the stormy sea.
Throw in a cavalier gypsy attitude and the thin-as-a-rake, born-in-Kiev lead singer’s distinctively thick Ukrainian accent for six albums, not to mention their frantic take-no-prisoners performances for audiences around the world — including a pair at the Danforth Music Hall on Aug. 19 and 20 — and you have an entity that stands alone in today’s music scene.
You’d think the diverse cultural sonics that reverberate so clearly in Gogol Bordello albums like 2005’s East Infection EP; 2010’s Rick Rubin-produced Trans-continental Hustle and the just-released Pura Vida Conspiracy would have already been plundered by other artists before Hutz got to them, considering their roots lie in songs that have been around for hundreds of years.
However, Hutz himself isn’t surprised, and doubts any such act would have arisen from North America in the first place.
“People are quite disconnected from cultural heritage,” he says. “For example, in Latin America, where I’ve spent the last five years living in Brazil between tours, what you will find is that amongst the Brazilian population — engineers, dentists, soccer players, lawyers, vendors and all their various kids — they will have about 100 songs that they all know in common from beginning to end.
“Can you think of 100 songs that people in North America know in common? Maybe they know the first verse of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ . . . maybe. They have absolutely no idea about any Appalachian ballads. Maybe they know a handful of pop standards, the significance of which is quite dubious. So I’m not really expecting anybody to resonate with a song like ‘If We Shall Sail’ on the new album, or ‘Name Your Ship.’”
In fact, Hutz maintains that foreigners have appropriated numerous folk music songs and styles so often that the true origin of this material usually goes unrecognized.
“I had a whole decade where I was obsessed with it, but that was before I started Gogol Bordello,” says Hutz, 40.
“All throughout the ’90s I was obsessed with folklore from Italy and Eastern Europe; chansons from France; Irish/English drinking songs; Appalachian ballads of America — and I studied it at the level of musicology and discovered a ton of things.
“I found that a lot of urban folklore songs that are considered to be deeply Ukrainian or Russian because they’ve been around there for 100 years, most of those melodies came from the Argentinian tango. Sailors brought them to Russia through the Black Sea. A lot of them are Neapolitan songs that have been vulgarized and bastardized and made into another entity with a different image behind it.
“You can see that the main musical export of Spain, which is flamenco, is not Spanish at all: It’s Arabic, brought into Spain by nomads and gypsies. Then it was appropriated to a whole Spanish aura. There are a lot of interesting facts like that.”
For his part, Hutz is satisfied that Gogol Bordello “are bringing that mix, even if people aren’t necessarily conscious of where that’s coming from,” but he doesn’t dwell on it when writing the band’s sometimes philosophical, sometimes humorous songs.
“I don’t even think about it,” he admits. “It’s simply one huge musical bundle. Erudition helps, but it doesn’t come from any recipe. It just comes from love of music, that’s all, in how all these different forms fit together.”
Pura Vida Conspiracy marks the Gogols’ first album since guitarist Oren Kaplan left the band. Kaplan filed a lawsuit last month against Hutz accusing the band leader of larceny; Hutz was unable to comment during this interview, as per instructions from his publicist.
But Hutz could talk about the album’s title, which he says was christened by Colombian concertgoers.
“We were in Colombia and I walked out on stage, and the people were chanting ‘Pura Vida!’” Hutz recalls, speaking on behalf of the band’s Russian violinist Sergey Ryabtsev, Belarusian accordion player Pasha Newmer, Ecuadorean vocalist Pedro Erazo, Ethiopian bassist Thomas Gobena, Americans Michael Ward and Oliver Charles, who play guitar and drums respectively, and Hong Kong singer Elizabeth Chi-Wei Sun.
“And I wondered, is this just something they say all the time here? Whatever it is, it sounds like they’re giving me the words to describe the album. It’s ‘pure life,’ and I added ‘conspiracy’ to kind of signify that for some very ironic reason, people don’t accept life for what it is.
“They’re always too busy living in the future, or living in the past.
“How does life work? Believe me — it works. As long as you’re breathing, you don’t need to overthink it.”