Gogol Bordello makes music sans borders

Gogol Bordello’s strength is combining things that shouldn’t go together but do, to glorious effect

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      Music and the glorious, unbridled anarchy it can create are fittingly the main topics of conversation when mustachioed madman Eugene Hütz is tracked down on a tour bus just outside of Chicago. But read between the lines, and the charismatic Gogol Bordello frontman is also talking about politics on a global scale.

      No one is going to confuse the veteran Gypsy-punk unit’s latest full-length, Pura Vida Conspiracy, with the type of radical sonic manifesto delivered by Rage Against the Machine, Crass, and every hardcore band that ever played a filthy London squat. Still, the album’s 12 songs pose some interesting questions. What if, they ask, there were no international borders—or, as Hütz likes to call them, “scars on the face of the planet”?

      If that were the case, the singer suggests, there would be nothing weird about the idea of Gogol Bordello using Pura Vida Conspiracy as an opportunity to add unfiltered salsa and flamenco (“Dig Deep Enough”) and mariachi (“Malandrino”) to its already globe-spanning mix of thrashy Balkan folk and American hardcore. “As an artist I’m pretty much free to take any culture and do whatever I like with it, without even thinking twice or looking back,” he says in awesomely accented English. “That’s the Gogol Bordello way. It’s about free will, reinterpretation, and collage. It’s not important to me, personally, whether someone thinks our new songs are more Balkan or more Latin. People discuss this record and are like, ‘Wow—there is even some mariachi music there.’ I’m like, ‘Really? Oh yeah… I guess I can see that it has a mariachi touch, but I didn’t really think about anything like that when I was creating the songs.’ ”

      The process, Hütz argues, was far more intuitive.

      “We’re polyamorous about music,” he says. “We don’t think, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s do something with a touch of Mexico now.’ That’s the last thing in my mind. It’s more that it worked perfectly on this record. It was a piece of a missing puzzle, that horn line on ‘Malandrino’.”

      In the larger picture, Pura Vida Conspiracy finds the singer once again tapping his inner nomad, embracing a wandering spirit that has made him unafraid to pull up roots in one country and then replant them in another. If he’s learned anything over the course of his peregrinations from his homeland of Ukraine to New York City to his current base of São Paulo, Brazil, it’s that we’re all standing on the same patch of dirt, namely Planet Earth.

      In that spirit, Gogol Bordello has made its most far-reaching—and, arguably, best—album to date with Pura Vida Conspiracy, on which the band also visits the spliffed-out streets of Kingston for the reggae-tinted “Gypsy Auto Pilot” and the badlands of Texas for the ghost-on-the-highway Americana of “Lost Innocent World”.

      By drawing from music from around the globe, Hütz and Gogol Bordello are sending what can be seen as a political message, namely that nothing is going to stop them from mixing and matching cultures that seemingly have little in common.

      “That’s a really good way of understanding the record,” the singer says. “What we do is largely driven by artistic intuition, or intuition in general. It can be described as music from the heart. I’m not a fan of music that’s overly calculated. Something happens in music as a form of art where it stops being music if it’s not being connected with chaos, which is the primary state of the universe.”

      That Hütz long ago learned to embrace that chaos won’t shock anyone who has ever witnessed the brilliant on-stage anarchy that is Gogol Bordello live. The group famously puts on a show in the truest sense of the word, the insanity ramped up by the fact that, as with the music it is playing, things that don’t seem like they are meant to go together somehow do. Hence you get 55-year-old white-haired Russian violinist Sergey Ryabtsev sawing away at his fiddle next to hulking Ethiopian-born bassist Thomas Gobena and Glasgow-raised Chinese backup singer Elizabeth Sun.

      “What I’m interested in doing, as an artist, is digging farther than any cultural identities—where you came from and where you’ve been,” Hütz says. “What is important to me is where you are now in the present.”

      On the subject of the singer’s past, his story is, as fans know, a fascinating one, with his family immigrating to the States from Kiev and eventually landing in Vermont, where Hütz’s first job was at a McDonald’s. After starting the band on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the singer eventually got restless. The past couple of years leading up to Pura Vida Conspiracy have seen him bouncing back and forth between countries and cultures.

      Back in the present, his move to São Paulo was sparked by a relationship that has since ended. Interestingly, if he’s learned anything there, it’s that assimilating into Brazilian culture isn’t easy when you’re a Russian-speaking immigrant from the United States of America. No wonder, then, that he’s restless again; as he was getting ready to write Pura Vida Conspiracy, Hütz was spending a lot of time in Kiev, where he’s excited to be setting up Casa Gogol, a cultural hub for artists.

      Add trips back to the States, and you’ve got a lot of globetrotting. For some, living out of a suitcase eventually starts to lose its lustre. Hütz isn’t one of those people. The Pura Vida part of the new record’s title translates into “pure life”. Boiling things down to basics, the album title is meant to reflect the singer’s quest for a simple, uncluttered life, one where folks are able to see that the world is actually a pretty great place, no matter how fucked-up things might seem.

      Consider that a good statement on where Hütz is at today, which is feeling blessed to be all over the map both literally and figuratively, doing his best to live as if borders don’t exist.

      “I’m in a fantastic place,” he says happily. “I’m a free man in every part of my life. I’m more free than ever because I’ve had all these experiences with cultures, and they’ve fulfilled me in certain ways. I’ve also learned that whatever you gain, you gain inside. No external environment is going to bring you to a place of actual freedom. Freedom is not an external thing, it’s an internal thing.

      “So the experience of going somewhere and becoming, temporarily, almost a local is important,” the singer adds. “If you can connect with people there, you will see that their cultural identity is almost unimportant in your communication. Cultures are beautiful formations, and something to enjoy, but they are not something to politicize and take too seriously.”