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The Arts

Gypsy Punk Rocker Eugene Hutz
Susan Kessler
Photos by Mason Poole

The Carpathian Mountains of Western Ukraine have a lot in common with New York City, according to gypsy punk rocker Eugene Hutz. The colorful array of sounds that coexist in the poverty stricken region are tough to match, but they come close to the kaleidoscope of New York's erratic scene, he explained before taking the stage at Moscow's plush new club Irka.

Few speak about Ukraine's deep country with the same feeling as Hutz, who was born Yevgeny Gudz in its capital city of Kiev in 1972. An hour before making his Russian debut at Ikra, near Metro Kurskaya in Moscow, Hutz sat down to explain how his Soviet childhood molded him into a hipster icon, whose unmistakable mustache and music are bewitching fans the world over.

"For me, there's a lot of similarities between Karpaty [mountains region] and New York, as absurd as it sounds to everybody else," said Hutz. It took the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 to turn Hutz onto Roma culture and the music of the Carpathian Mountains, which would eventually propel him to become the lead singer of New York City's Gogol Bordello gypsy punk band.

After the information about Chernobyl's nuclear reactor explosion finally seeped through the Soviet veil of secrecy, many of Kiev's families scrambled to find places where their children could escape the first few deadly months of skyrocketing radiation. That was how Hutz found out that he was related to a family of gypsies, living in Western Ukraine.

Spending the post-Chernobyl year with them in the Carpathian Mountains was the turning point for Hutz, who, at the age of fourteen, was "blown away by the flood of different languages and cultures there." Some tensions between Russian and Ukrainian cultures existed in Kiev, which was a heavily Russified city. But in the Carpathian mountains, "everyone just spoke what they wanted... It was like -- forget all this noise! Language is a gift from God," Hutz said, in a heavy Russian accent, which became Gogol Bordello's trademark.

The melting pot of Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian and Romanian cultures, nestled deep in the Carpathian Mountains, and the area's tradition of heart-felt, fiery Gypsy music enchanted him. "Every May or June I go to Karpaty, which I feel is my cultural home," said Hutz, who has been living in New York since 1993.

His family immigrated from Ukraine in 1989 and was in Austria when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. "It wasn't a shock because that's why we left. Everything was crumbling," Hutz recalled. Eking out an existence and struggling to build a new life as they gradually moved across Europe and to the United States was the main concern for Hutz's family. Given the stress of immigration, the fall of the Soviet Union "just couldn't win space in our heads," he said.

Hutz, whose open manner is almost shocking given his rock star status, said that "people don't like to talk about their experience in immigration because they don't like to feel like fools. The first one, two, five, seven years — it's brutal."

Still, "It was worth it for me," he said without pause. "I didn't give up on my music...This is exactly what I want to be doing."

His fiery, one-man DJ show at Ikra offered an unmistakable mix of ethnic sound along with an energized, irreverent beat, all of which is characteristic of Gogol Bordello's style. Unfortunately, the rest of the band did not come to Russia to perform with Hutz.

"People usually go on tour for three weeks and then, they go home, licking their wounds," he explained. "We just conquered Canada, the UK and the whole of America." After a tenday break in New York, Hutz flew to Moscow, while the rest of Gogol Bordello went on vacation.

Hutz's energy, making him climb to the top of the stage lights and go all out for an audience of just about twenty clubbers at Ikra, seems to reach a maddening level of intensity during shows. It is not a lack of energy on the part of his band mates, however, that is making Gogol Bordello stay away from Moscow.

"Basically, we'll have to pursue [a Russia tour] on our own because our label and management is not really interested in doing anything here because it's so fucking corrupt," Hutz said. Gogol Bordello's American label does not see Russia as "a worthwhile investment" because of the country's rampant piracy of copyrighted music.

The DVD stands at Moscow's Izmailovo market boast an impressive selection of unlicensed discs, including an independent American film called Everything Is Illuminated. Hutz co-starred alongside Elijah Wood in this 2005 on-screen version of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel about a young Jewish American, who travels to Ukraine to find a woman, who saved his grandfather's life during World War II.

No amount of pirated discs, however, could make Gogol Bordello keep away from Kiev. "We had to do Ukraine before Russia" Hutz, who was wearing a faded Kievskaya Rus t-shirt, said with a throaty laugh.

Gogol Bordello band had its Ukrainian debut in 2003, but Hutz turned down invitations to play in Kiev during the socalled Orange Revolution the following year. When people took to the streets to protest corruption and demand democracy, Hutz stayed in close touch with his friends in Kiev. "I was receiving invitations to come, but the situation was so unclear that I ... wanted to avoid the political hype, or political hysteria," he said.

While he was tempted to go, Hutz said he did not want to be like "all these starts, who had no fucking credibility," but got on the Orange Revolution bandwagon to "get some of that Che Gevara glow to rub off on them." Gogol Bordello states its support for the wronged, for the little guy every day the band is on the road, he said. "Why overstate the obvious?" Hutz asked. He said: "It's almost absurd that Gogol Bordello has such a political overtone in the press."

While he admitted to being "clinically obsessed with some things," he said that politics is not one of them. In the aftermath of the Ukrainian revolution, Gogol Bordello did reference the "emotionally charged" event in the name of its third full-length album by calling it Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike. The album has been described as a "mad mixture of gypsy, punk, reggae, Latin and who knows what else."

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