A breakdown of a Gogol Bordello concert is as follows: a dollop of anarchy, a bottle of hard liquor, a large handful of punk, half a cup of sweat and a strong splash of reckless fun stirred in for good measure. Together, these ingredients form a volatile concoction that releases tremendous amounts of pure, unfiltered energy. This energy is enough to get everyone within the vicinity of a half mile jumping and slam dancing to the vibes of the Gypsy–Punk spirit. Every few nights or so, front man Eugene Hütz and his jolly circus of musical troubadours transform crowds from all around the world into clammy song-and-dance parties.
A native New York City band, Gogol Bordello consists of Russo-Ukranijano-Romano guitarist/vocalist Eugene Hütz, Russian violin-virtuoso Sergey Ryabtsev, Spanish-Latvian guitarist Oren Kaplan, Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish-Polish accordionist Yuri Lemeshev, Ecuadorian MC Pedro Erazo, Chinese backing vocalist/percussionist Elizabeth Chi-Wei Sun and Trinidad and Tobago-Italian-Swedish drummer Oliver Francis Charles. Only in New York City can one find a band comprised of such ethnically diverse musicians. However, while the group’s music certainly has eclectic influences, ranging from dub to punk, the violin and accordion melodies are steadfast reminders of the European roots of Gogol’s music.
While I was vacationing in Moscow, where Gogol had been scheduled to play a show a few days before its anticipated NYC show, it seemed fitting to experience Gogol’s Slavic music in a Slavic country. I found myself in an outdoor theater, among a large crowd of 19 and 20 year olds. Everyone sported a thick accent and funky hairstyle and awaited this sonic syndicate of transcontinental vagabonds.
What surprised me was the fervor with which the people in the crowd awaited the band’s arrival. They all seemed to be really into it, despite the fact that Gogol’s music is essentially a beefed-up offshoot of their own heritage. Some even chanted “Zhenya,” which is the diminutive version of Hütz’s first name. After a half hour of shouting and chanting, the crowd erupted into screams as the band members finally took the stage, one by one. Last but not least, Hütz stumbled out unshaven, draped in necklaces and sporting tight, striped purple shorts and a pair of clown shoes. With a bottle of wine in one hand, and a gypsy guitar in the other, he commenced the musical ceremonies.
What came afterward was a rigorous, two-hour exercise in heritage. With the frenzied and festive music, the crowd quickly began to resemble a wave pool, with bodies flying up and down and heads reeling about in time with the percussive guitar strumming. Toward the center of the crowd were moshers, which are slam dancers and other adrenaline-fixated individuals. With every song, the crowd responded more and more passionately. The low basses and shrill screams of ardent fans singing back to the band echoed all around. On the dance floor, which was now soaked with beer, sweat and possibly blood, arms and legs were flying in a flurry. Some people were jumping side to side, into one another. Others were skanking, which is a ska dance that involves kicking one’s legs out and swinging one’s arms back and forth and side to side. A few distinguished individuals and I were dancing the Tarantella, a fast-paced Italian dance resembling a delirious and agitated hop and skip. Lastly, the truest Slavs were performing a traditional Ukrainian folk dance that involves squatting and kicking one’s legs out.
One frenetic jam progressed into another, and the white-hot intensity of the band radiated into the roaring, cavorting crowd before it. A slow ballad did not diffuse the loving energy. Instead, the crowd became a choir as countless people raised up lighters, swayed them from side to side and belted out tunes in harmony. As soon as the band began another roaring folk tune, the winding dances resumed. The number of willing dancers had dwindled to a steadfast few, who were now shirtless and joined in a circle, spinning round and round with exuberant shouts of “hop”—a Ukrainian exclamation that means “jump.”
To say that I had an epiphany that night would be cheesy, but never had I been among a group of people with such a welcoming vibe. As the mission charter on Gogol’s Web site states, Gogol Bordello’s music “provokes the audience into a neo-optimistic communal movement toward new sources of authentic energy.” The sensation is a wiry, but fuzzy, high that gives you a sense of friendship with strangers who suddenly hold your sweaty hands and ritually sing and dance with you. If that isn’t enough, the crazy madhouse, Gogol Bordello, has a passionate live show that cannot, and should not, be missed.