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Gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello makes music that crosses borders

Immigrant Songs

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To paraphrase Johnny Cash, Eugene Hütz has been everywhere, man.

Born in the Ukraine to a Russian father and German mother, Hütz fled his home country as a teenager in the wake of the Chernobyl meltdown. What followed was a long odyssey that took him to live with his grandmother's gypsy clan, and then to American-run camps for asylum seekers in Poland, Austria, and Italy, and, finally, to Burlington, Vt. Eventually he'd wind his way down to New York, where he'd start up the genre-obliterating band Gogol Bordello in 1999.

Even now, Hütz remains in perpetual motion, whether on the road with Gogol Bordello or not. He's lived in Brazil for six years now, hopping back and forth between Rio and São Paolo, though he still maintains a home in New York. If he's learned anything over the course of his peregrinations from Ukraine to the U.S. to Brazil, it's that we're all standing on the same patch of dirt.

"There's different homes, you know," he says, his accented English betraying his Eastern European heritage. "Brazil is the home of chill. And New York is more for kicking ass and pushing the envelope. I also like to go to places that are very remote and get away from any kind of stimulation whatsoever. I like to have all those aspects of my life in different homes. I don't think I could accomplish everything I want in one particular home. That's just not the way I am."

Gogol Bordello reflects its founder's wanderlust. Take 2013's Pura Vida Conspiracy for instance. Draped in Gogol Bordello's trademark gypsy-punk sound, the LP pushes hard at the boundaries of the band's already abundant blend of Eastern European and Celtic folk, rock 'n' roll, and reggae traditions. The band, too, draws from all corners of the globe, with 55-year-old Russian violinist Sergey Ryabtsev sawing away next to hulking Ethiopian-born bassist Thomas Gobena and Glasgow-raised, Chinese-born backup singer Elizabeth Sun. Ryabtsev, a former theater director in Moscow, also proves helpful in crafting Gogol Bordello's legendarily energetic and occasionally bizarre stage shows — like one that tells the story of superpowered immigrant Ukrainian vampires.

For Hütz, borders are nothing but limits — "scars on the face of the planet" or so he sings on Pura Vida's "We Rise Again," paraphrasing a line from noted Russian poet Yevgeniy Yevtushenko. Thus Hütz finds nothing weird about melding bust-up gypsy-punk with spaghetti-western country, or adding unfiltered salsa and flamenco to traditional Romani folk and polka.

"There's not this compartmentalized vision of styles and cultures, like it's ingredients for a cake," Hütz says. "It's never been like that. I don't write music that way. That's a very cynical way to make music.

"I just write a song," he continues. "It's not like I take a song from Australia and a song from Argentina and take a traditional song from another place. That's not what I do. I don't combine them."

The process, Hütz argues, is far more intuitive, an outgrowth of the ensemble's multi-ethnic makeup and polyamorous approach to music. The mariachi horns that fleck "Malandrino," for instance, weren't coldly calculated. Neither was the funky backdrop that underpins the punk-country of "John the Conqueror," nor the extended heavy metal rendition of "Jealous Sister," a secret track that follows album closer "We Shall Sail." They were just the missing pieces of those particular puzzles.

"We do it without even thinking about it," Hütz says. "The people in the band are from different parts of the world. It's not like [Gobena] thinks, 'Oh, I need to have an Asian bassline here.' No, he just plays whatever fits."

Where most people are looking for a box to put stuff in, Hütz argues, Gogol Bordello actively avoids such constraints, questing for self-knowledge beyond borders and nationalities. It's all a part, Hütz says, of Gogol Bordello's larger exploration of the concept of human potential.

"One way or another, I'm kind of always on that topic," he laughs. "I think that topic has been pretty central for me my whole life. It's what drives me forward to acquire the different, newer and newer levels of accord. It's really a wonderful engine for progress, dwelling on human potential. The semi-downfall of that is that you're never really in one comfort zone for too long."

"Once I reach certain comfort zones," Hütz continues, "be it in music or martial arts, you know, or any other kind of practice, after experiencing that plateau for a while, I tend to move on."

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