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Illuminating a new genre: Gypsy punk

The eccentric octet Gogol Bordello was destined to be tapped for Liev Schreiber's quirky Ukraine opus.

October 09, 2005|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

IF Eastern Europe made a musical crash landing in the U.S., it would sound like Gogol Bordello -- a bawdy pack of immigrants dancing their way through the streets late at night, instruments blaring. The New York City eight-piece is the American melting pot as music: a multicultural riot of violin, accordion, ska, flamenco and rock, or, as the band says more succinctly, "Gypsy punk."

"I wanted to combine most extreme sounds of the East and most extreme sounds of West," said mustachioed frontman Eugene Hutz, who sings in sneering, Ukrainian-accented English. "I didn't want it to be punk rock-flavored with accordion. That's why I went for seeking excellent musicians from Eastern Europe, putting them together with musicians that were schooled in punk and rock 'n' roll and other things."

Among those musicians: Sergey Rjabtzev, a fiddler who worked as a theater director in Moscow, and Rea Mochiach, an Israeli bass player with a background in jazz, dub and drum 'n' bass.

Throw in a couple of dancing drummers, an accordionist and a handful of other musicians and the result is so irresistibly lively and welcoming that it could seduce the most recalcitrant and reserved listener into a vodka-fueled, kick-dancing frenzy.

It's this sort of pied-piper vibe that's had the group touring the world for the past half decade, from Bosnia-Herzegovina to San Diego, in venues as diverse as art galleries, Gypsy festivals, fashion shows, even this year's Warped Tour.

On Oct. 22, they'll bring their circus act of a show to the Troubadour in support of the group's recent third release, "Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike" on SideOneDummy Records.

"We are equally unappropriate anywhere," Hutz said.

Maybe so, but the group's stock seems to be rising. Most recently, Gogol Bordello got a boost from its contributions to the new Liev Schreiber film, "Everything Is Illuminated," in which Hutz also played the character Alex. Portraying a Ukrainian Ali G wannabe forced to work for his father's tour guide service, Hutz almost steals the show from star Elijah Wood.

And Hutz isn't even an actor. At least, he wasn't.

For months, Jason Schwartzman had been cast as the character Hutz eventually played. But after Schreiber approached Hutz about including Gogol Bordello's music in the film, it was clear Hutz was more appropriate for the part of the young born-and-bred Ukrainian who never identified with his home country and who speaks English enthusiastically, if imperfectly.

"I'm that guy," Hutz told Schreiber.

"There is some archetypal traits that Eastern European people carry, and one of the most important ones being is verbal creativity," Hutz explained, unwittingly proving his point.

English clearly is a second language for Hutz, 33, who grew up in Ukraine until the Chernobyl disaster sent his family on a seven-year tour of Eastern European refugee camps. He moved to New York in 1998 and began gathering the musicians who would soon become Gogol Bordello.

Hutz writes all the lyrics for the songs, which are, for the most part, carousing immigrant vignettes -- all punctuated with unintentional malapropisms or mangled grammar.

"Legalize me! Realize me! Party!" Hutz belts out on "Immigrant Punk," a track on the new album that could easily double as the band's manifesto. "I know you since you were a 20 and I was 20," he sings in a line from "Start Wearing Purple," a song that appears on the album as well as in the film.

Much of "Gypsy Punks" was written and recorded after Hutz had finished "Everything Is Illuminated." Likewise for the movie's score, which was created in a series of late-night "gypsy sessions" at the New York office of music supervisor Susan Jacobs.

"All I needed was a wine and vodka budget, and off we'd go," said Jacobs, who recorded the sessions with composer Paul Cantelon playing piano and some of the Gogol Bordello musicians improvising on the spot.

"There's something brilliant about getting back to spirit," Jacobs said.

"That's what Gogol Bordello did for the film. Their spirit is there."

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