Published January 2019
9. Gogol Bordello – Oh No (2005)
Track 9 connects the southeast corner of Manhattan Island with the southeast corner of Europe. In the former we find New York’s Lower East Side and East Village, a hustling bustling area that has developed its character over the years through various waves of migration. In the latter we find the Kievan Rus’, or at least we would if we were looking at a map from mid-11th century. The confederation that centred on the modern day Ukrainian capital represents the origins of the modern nations of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Gogol Bordello’s core membership comprises of individuals from all three countries – earning them the much coveted title of the Kievan Rus’ of Rock n Roll – while their origins as a band lie in the Lower East Side, featuring both a frontman with history in the Little Ukraine ethnic enclave of the East Village and a chaotic sound drawn directly from their roots. In many ways Gogol Bordello and their much travelled front man, Eugene Hütz, represent a neat encapsulation of the buzz generated in this part of town.
The song meanwhile covers New York City as a whole, and a much greater area beyond that – when a tree branch connected with power lines in Ohio in August 2003 it set off a series of events that led to the second most widespread blackout in human history, one which provided the thematic basis for this track.
Gogol Bordello’s Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike was released in August 2005, weeks before my 17th birthday. This is a critical time in the evolution of one’s musical palette – if you’re like me, the artists you adore then are the ones that come with you when you leave home for university, and most likely stay with you for the rest of your life. Purchasing Gypsy Punks on the back of hearing party novelty hit Start Wearing Purple, I was bowled over and intoxicated by the hyperactive rock n roll slavic energy of the album, having never heard anything remotely close – vocally, musically, spiritually – to songs such as Not A Crime, Dogs Were Barking or Undestructable.
Having exposed new university friends to their sound once I touched down in London, I was delighted to discover that my sister and her friendship group shared this appreciation. One of my fondest memories of that first year in London is of a group of us bouncing incessantly at a sweaty raucous Gogol gig at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. We’re here somewhere:
The follow up to Gypsy Punks, 2007’s Super Taranta!, came at the end of my first year of study and I loved it even more. Gogol gigs became a semi regular hobby for us, snapping up tickets every time they came to town, and there has never been an act that has made me feel more simultaneously exhausted and elated by the time I left the arena. Furthermore it helped foster an affinity for non-traditional modern methods of adapting Romani, Balkan and other southeast European sounds – should you find yourself on a festival site wondering where to find the best party, seeking out gypsy (or gypsy inspired) rockers or DJs is never a bad bet.
Tucked away in the middle of Gypsy Punks album is the quietly underrated Oh No, an album track that isn’t always the first port of call for Gogol aficionados but for me a delightful exercise in rapid build up and jovial sing along chorus. I also recalled many moons ago frontman Eugene Hütz discussing the meaning behind the song – and how it related to one particular night in New York City…
Fast forward 800 years later and an accordion played by a white Russian, a fiddle played by a great Russian, and the distinctly large vocals of a little Russian combine to create one of the most unique sounds in rock. Meanwhile around a third of New York City’s 80,000 Ukrainian-Americans reside in the area of ‘Little Ukraine’ in Manhattan’s East Village, itself home to large numbers of Russian and Jewish communities. Such geographical distinctions can be as confusing in New York as in eastern Europe – East Village was once considered part of the Lower East Side but has become a distinct entity in its own right, in part thanks to a gentrification process that began with an influx of artists, musicians and hippies in the 1960s.
In 1998 Eugene Hütz ticked the boxes of both Ukrainian-American and aspiring artist. He had travelled to the East Village from Burlington, Vermont, where his family had eventually settled in the early 90s following escape from Chernobyl radiation. In New York Hütz sourced other talented musicians who shared in his hedonistic worldview, forging a multicultural collective as he went along. The Lower East Side, which has also seen waves of German, Eastern European and Puerto Rican working class migration, was where Gogol Bordello found a home – and the part Servitka Roma Hütz set about fusing the sounds and ideologies of gypsy with those of punk.
“It had to have the Eastern European instruments, but I didn’t want it to be flavoured – I wanted it to be real. I hate the fucking ‘flavoured’ music.”
– Eugene Hütz
By summer 2003 Hütz’s band had not quite hit the big time, but did have two albums under their belt. It isn’t recorded exactly where the singer was on the afternoon of August 14 when the lights first went off for 55 million people across eight US states and one Canadian province, but the lyrics to Oh No reveal where he ended up. When a similar blackout had hit a more poverty stricken New York City in 1977 it became defined by high levels of crime and disorder (as touched upon in the story of hip hop’s origins) but ‘03 was a different story – the defining characteristic was not looting but partying. Crisis-driven solidarity became the order of the day, marooned commuters joining locals in a spirit of debauchery, attacking perishable supplies of discounted beer and ice cream rather than vulnerable storefronts – and in this US100 feature piece you can read two very different perspectives on this chain of events.
Another perspective comes in the form of this song, as Hütz grabbed his guitar and made for the block parties that had taken over town.
Oh No combines Gogol Bordello’s trademark bounce and bite with a lyrical lament of the human condition. It begins happily enough as Eugene Hütz surveys the blackout scene around him, noting girls dancing with flashlights as makeshift drum kits are created from buckets, and celebrates the silly turn New York has taken. He delights in the fact that his fellow New Yorkers are ‘all engaged in sport of help / making merry out of nothing / like in refugee camp’. This energy is reflected in the musical tone, with the song itself feeling like all-inclusive party thrown for the entire neighbourhood, invoking wistful imagery of revellers dancing around campfires along the way.
But by verse 2 the lights of the Northeast are back on and New York City has gone back to work. Hütz suffers from disillusionment with this ‘back to normal’ attitude, frustrated his vision of a blackout-sparked revolution has not come to pass:
But as soon as the trouble over
Watch them take another nap
Nobody is making merry
Only trotting scared of boss
Everybody’s making hurry
For some old forgotten cause
The end result is a raucous condemnation of big city psychology. Perhaps when your lifestyle is one of a rock star leading a group hellbent on hedonism, it can be difficult to relate to the normos and squares that clog up your city – and perhaps this is particularly galling if you’ve witnessed a rare hair down moment when the norms of ‘the system’ are taken away.
2005 was a whirlwind year for Eugene Hütz. In August Gogol Bordello released the Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike record that would bring the band their greatest levels of fame and attention, and only a month later its frontman made his major cinematic debut. Everything Is Illuminated, based on a novel of the same name and starring Elijah Wood alongside Hütz (pictured), is a wonderfully told tale of an American Jew visiting European lands in which Nazi atrocities were committed against his family. It might not sound it, but at many points the film is hilarious, in large part thanks to Hütz’s performance.
“What once started as ‘gypsy punky party’ here, in our Beloved NYC, has resulted in a body of uncompromisingly joyous grooves, stomp monster songs, story telling jams and terrifyingly reckless ballads.”
Not that any of this extracurricular activity has led to Hütz taking his eye off the Gogol Bordello ball. This year they embark on their 20th anniversary tour, their current line up now seeing their Eastern European roots complemented by Ethiopian and Ecuadorian members but still largely defined by the leadership of Hütz and legendary fiddle player Sergey Ryabtsev. Linking us nicely to our previous chapter, US mega-producer and early founder of new school hip hop, Rick Rubin, worked with them on their 2010 album, Transcontinental Hustle, three years after the release of what I consider to be the definitive Gogol Bordello masterpiece: 2007’s Super Taranta!, an utter tour de force of gypsy rock insanity.
Perhaps a little more unexpectedly, 2007 was also the year that gypsy punk came to be associated with Madonna and Al Gore – at least for one evening. Madge was joined by Hütz and Ryabtsev on the Wembley stage at Gore’s Live Earth climate change awareness concert, exposing the group to an audience of millions around the globe as they mashed up Madonna’s La Isla Bonita with Lela Pala Tute, a traditional folk song from the Carpathian homeland.
When not on the tour bus, Hütz was last heard to be residing in Brazil, the South American continent seemingly striking a chord with him sometime ago. Sadly his Kiev entrepreneurial venture and flawless pun Gogol BARdello seems not to have lasted long.
Meanwhile the outlook for many in the southeastern corner of Manhattan continues to be tied up in the fate of southeastern Europe. One can imagine how global citizen Hütz hurt as large swathes of his home country descended into a territorial conflict between his home nation and those of his bandmates, playing on ethnic divisions that have formented since the separation of the Kievan Rus’. The modern day Ukrainian conflict has also had a knock on effect on the Russian and Ukrainian communities in New York, whether in Brooklyn’s ‘Little Odessa’ or the East Village’s ‘Little Ukraine’.
Gogol Bordello’s name derives from classical writer Nikolai Gogol, with Eugene Hütz claiming that the band are trying to emulate Gogol’s ‘smuggling’ of Ukrainian artistry into other cultures. In a short lived stint as Professor of Medieval History at the University of St. Petersburg, Gogol once abandoned his remit to question students during an examination and instead sat in utter silence with a black handkerchief wrapped around his head while simulating a toothache.
US100 interview: Ranjit Chagar and Ethel Bessem – Perspectives of a blackout
Hutz-pah! – Seven Days, July 2005
New York City Blackout 2003: Remembering The Power Outage 10 Years Later – Huffington Post, August 2013
Gogol Bordello: Music from ‘Gypsy Punks’, NPR (April 2006)
Gogol Bordello – Super Taranta! (2007) Spotify / YouTube
US100 cover of choice
DoctaPockets (2012) YouTube