Cultural Collision

Gogol Bordello brings its Ukrainian gypsy punk cabaret to Club Congress.

Is the "Ukrainian Gypsy Punk Cabaret" music of the band Gogol Bordello camp comedy or serious art? Damned if it's not tough to tell. It's probably both.

No matter, it's unlikely you've heard anything similar to this New York City band, which has earned raves from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and New York and Time Out magazines, among other august publications.

"Gogol Bordello has become an underground hit with its brand of contrarian globalism," according to the Times.

Envision a mutant cross of Joe Strummer and Nick Cave fronting a deranged, artsy klezmer band. Then you might have some idea of the collision of guitars, saxophone, fiddle, accordion, dangerous moustaches and dancers that you'll encounter when Gogol Bordello headlines a show Friday night at Club Congress.

Singer and songwriter Eugene Hutz is the 30-year-old Kiev-born leader of the band, which includes immigrants from Russia, the Ukraine, Israel and, um, California, as well as refugees from the downtown New York jazz, ethnic and avant-garde music scenes.

Hutz told the Times that the band's name derives from the fact that Ukrainian satirist Nikolai Gogol is the favorite writer--a "grotesque, melancholic and profound visionary," says the singer--of the majority of the band's members. The word "bordello"--in which can be found both pleasure and vulgarity--allows for a variety of interpretations and misinterpretations, he said.

Lately, Hutz has taken to calling his band's post-modern burlesque "rural Transylvanian avant-hard." Can't say he hasn't learned to artfully manipulate English idioms.

Gogol Bordello performances--complete with the out-there Gogol Dance Troop (Pamela Racine, Susan Donaldson), pointed onstage skits and Hutz's antic presence--are meant to resemble an anarchic blend of theater and rock 'n' roll.

Which is probably why the band is as comfortable playing the Whitney Museum as it is in dank bars and Russian, Greek and Bulgarian social clubs.

Nightspots frequented by Eastern European immigrants, Hutz has said, embrace Gogol Bordello's brand of theatrical chaos. "Culturally, they're prepared for debauchery. They appreciate it."

If you think you're punk, try and imagine how Hutz felt growing up in a culture that considered listening to rock 'n' roll to be seditious.

"Where I come from all rock 'n' roll forever was pretty much forbidden music," Hutz told The New York Times earlier this year. Kinda like it must have felt once upon a time in the United States.

But Hutz had good role models, such as his father, a guitarist in one of the former Soviet Union's first rock bands. In terms of influential performers, Hutz also reveres both Iggy Pop and Charlie Chaplin as heroes.

As a youth, Hutz traded black-market tapes of groups such as Suicide, the Birthday Party and Einstürzende Neubauten and James Chance. These days, his group claims influences as varied as Béla Bartók and Sonic Youth.

He didn't become exposed to the beauty of traditional gypsy music until his family was evacuated to the rural Ukraine after the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, which is about an hour from Kiev.

Hutz left the Ukraine in 1989 and spent the next three years moving through refugee camps in Poland, Hungary, Austria and Italy before washing up in New York. He played in various short-lived punk bands in New England and on the East Coast before being hired to play gypsy songs at a Russian wedding in 1998. An idea took root.

That seed has since blossomed, so far yielding two albums, the second of which, Multi Kontra Culti vs. Irony, was released in September on the tiny Rubric Records. The new recording is a terrific hybrid that grew out of the forced cross-pollination of rock, cabaret and Slavic and Balkan folk styles.

The CD reaches its climax in the messy, wonderful, nine-minute epic "Baro Foro," which throbs with mostly-acoustic beauty and glorious energy. Lurching horns and seductive violins conjure the spirit of an Eastern European circus band, while Hutz mixes English and Russian lyrics about escape and transcendence: "Our silver plain (sic) will be leaving / onto new space onto new time."

The new album's title hints at whether Hutz and Gogol Bordello intend their musical miscegenation to be ironic or earnest. The tune "Let's Get Radical" is another clue. In it Hutz sings that "some things are actually sacred" and criticizes an acquaintance's "self-collapsing ironic mind."

Hutz elaborated recently in an interview on the band's Internet site. He espoused "radical optimism despite everything" and ranted, "There is no room for irony in this world anymore."

In its rage against the complacent machine, Gogol Bordello dares emotionally detached consumers of the 21st century to try something radical: feel something--anything--and get re-acquainted with the ceremony of life.

"Performance should be brought back to a shamanic level," Hutz has said. "Bruce Lee had it. He was in the moment, without a plan, directly responding to the world around him."

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