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Gogol Bordello - Roma punks rise at the right time + free Discography
By Stuart Munckton ........................ “My next guests are a gypsy punk rock band that have been called the world’s most visionary band”, US TV show host Jay Leno said when he introduced Gogol Bordello to close the October 13, 2010. Jay Leno Show. The US-based band, led by a charismatic Roma (or “gypsy”) refugee from the Ukraine, Eugene Hutz, performed “Pala Tute”, the opening track from this year’s Transcontinental Hustle. If “most visionary” is an exaggeration, Gogol Bordello could at least lay claim to being one of the most interesting and important acts in popular music right now.
Frozen eyes, sweaty back. My family’s sleeping on a railroad track.
The film clip for “Immigraniada” draws the key points out clearly. It begins with images of early 20th century refugees arrived in the US as blood splatters on the screen — congealing into a map of the US. Hutz eyeballs the camera and sings the lines as a textile sweatshop worker then dishwasher. The clip ends with a black screen with the words, “No Human Being is Illegal” and a migrants’ rights website.
(You can also see a great ad hoc acoustic performance of the song by the band here.)
The significance of these songs lies in the fact they come Roma and refugees themselves. But neither song, which are both as relatively straight punk as Gogol Bordello tend to play, capture the album’s musical heart.
A better candidate, with its heady combination of political anger and musical maturity, is “When Universes Collide”. This song is both moving and harrowing in its depiction of a society torn apart by class divisions and brutal state repression. It shows the influence of Hutz’s move to Brazil. The song sums up much about Latin America, including Brazil, with its slums and wealth disparity. It is about the repression of the poor in the slums and the failure to take action of a hypocritical middle- and upper-class elite with liberal pretensions.
A voice from the slum asks of member of the better off sectors: “Why didn’t you come, when I beat my drum and I screamed my head off into the night? Scared of the slums, afraid of the guns. You don’t want to see the hoodlums fight.”
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The voice from the privileged sectors insists defensively that class is no issue for them: “I grew up around different part of town, but even the universes collide.”
The hollowness of such liberal sentiments is laid bare when the real reason for the failure to answer the call of the poor is explained: “By the castes we don’t divide. But it is just my father told me, tonight authorities are preparing ethno-cleansing ride…”
The repression, and the reality of class divisions, is depicted with brutal simplicity: “Two helicopters with machine guns, over the slums proudly will glide. So when the universes collide, don’t get caught, son, on the wrong side.”
“When Universes Collide” starts slowly, builds in intensity and passion as Hutz delivers wrenching lines on the abandonment of the slum dwellers: “Your mother told you! Your father stopped you! Out of the hospitals, you are afraid!”
“When Universes Collide” could be about anywhere in Latin America, if not any Third World country. Most likely, its inspiration is repression against Brazilian slums in the name of tackling “criminal gangs”. But to me, it brings to mind Venezuela’s el Caracazo in 1989.
Faced with International Monetary Fund-imposed price rises on essential goods, the poor in Caracas’s slums rose up in revolt. The government sent in the army, who shot unarmed protesters. Thousands were slaughtered. The rising is considered by Venezuela’s poor as the start of the Bolivarian revolution, now lead by the pro-poor government of President Hugo Chavez. Under the Chavez government, Venezuela is being transformed.
For the wealthier citizens of Caracas, however, el Caracazo is remembered with fear as “the day the poor came down from the hills”. Most of Venezuela’s middle class abandoned the poor to their fate. The middle- and upper-class bitterly opposed the Chavez government, whose policies have halved poverty rates. Middle-class doctors proved that “out of the hospitals they are afraid”, refusing Chavez government requests to treat the poor in the slums — claiming it was too dangerous.
Instead, Cuban doctors have provided free health care to the poor. New university courses opened to the poor are training a new generation of doctors dedicated to serving in the poor and working class areas.
But “When Universes Collide” could also describe a different set of events in 1989 in a different Latin American nation: the terrifying firebombing by the US military of Panama City’s slums during the US invasion that overthrew a formerly US-backed dictatorship. No one counted the number of poor slaughtered.
No doubt there are many other examples from Third World countries all over the world that fit the song.
Other songs on the album combine politics with a heady musical brew and Gogol Bordello’s irrepressible energy. “Never did I fit the frame invented by the gringos”, Hutz sings on “In The Meantime In Pernambuco”.
“My Companjera” is about missing someone while suffering the hardships of relentless touring – told with typical black humour: “Jetlag, hangover, malnutrition, you can’t fly in this condition. And if no one intervenes, out of the window is my mission.”
“Raise the Knowledge” is an appeal to learn the lessons of the past and insists history is not over. “Transcontinental Hustle” describes colonial plundering: “Old school, they were just nomadic forces. Kill all the men, steal all the women and the horses. Then later on, moved on to the pursuit of spices and finally the rest of all devices.” It calls for a new globilisation to “sweep all the Nazi purists off their feet”.
“Last One Goes the Hope” is about not giving in, despite the struggle to live “In a city of ruins where no-one sings, but zombies and willful slaves living in their tiny private caves”. This rejection of the sterile, empty life the system offers ordinary people is a long-running Gogol Bordello theme. The right to celebrate is a key message.
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This is a theme that features on a number of Super Taranta! songs.
“American Wedding” ironically conterposes a lifeless US culture with Hutz’s Roma background: “Have you ever been to American wedding? Where’s the vodka, where’s marinated herring?” “People gotta get up early”, he notes despairingly as the event peters out, “Yeah, they gotta go.”
“Tribal Connections” takes aim at Hutz’s then home of New York City: “Where there’s a music should be comin’ out of every car, there is a silence all over downtown. Where community celebrates shall be aroused, I walk the sterile gardens where life is on pause.” “No can do this, no can do that”, the chorus laments, “What the hell can you do my friend, in this place that you call your town?”
Gogol Bordello’s response is a form of cultural direct action — playing full-on, spirited shows aimed at creating a collective sense of fun.
Not for nothing does Hutz sing on “Break the Spell”: “One thing about them gypsys, we never bore nobody!”
But on Transcontinental Hustle, Gogol Bordello has reached higher. Gogol Bordello has created an album that, musically and lyrically, reaches new levels of maturity in its condemnation of the injustices ordinary people are subjected to — especially refugees, persecuted minorities and the world’s poor.