Roma Punks Rise At The Right Time

Source: Green Left Weekly

“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.

Made up of migrants from various countries, including Russia, China and Uruguay, Gogol Bordello’s first album was released in 1999. Trancontinental Hustle is their fifth.

What makes this undeniably innovative band, with its fusion of a range of world musical styles with the energy of punk rock, so significant right now?

There are some inter-related factors.

For one, it is Gogol Bordello’s first album on a major label — American Recordings. The band worked with renowned producer Rick Rubin, famous for helping take the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to mainstream success and for producing Johnny Cash’s American Recording series of albums in the 1990s.

Even more important, though possibly related, is the fact this album marks a qualitative leap forward creatively. The sound is noticeably more mature and textured than on past albums.

Hutz moved to Brazil in 2008 and a strong Latino flavour, musically and lyrically, is added to the already potent mix.

Before Transcontinental Hustle, reviews of Gogol Bordello albums tended to emphasise that it is really an act to be seen live. Gogol Bordello’s impassioned, alcohol-fuelled shows are legendary — but such energy is hard to capture in a studio album.

The latest album marks Gogol Bordello’s definitive break from any sense it is merely part party band, part novelty act. The path was blazed by 2007’s Super Taranta!, which came 14th in Rolling Stone’s top 50 albums that year. It was this album that provoked one of the US’s most famous rock critics, Robert Christgau, to label them “the world’s most visionary band” in a December 2007 review.

Super Taranta! featured songs that were more than just fast-paced punk songs mixed with elements of traditional Roma music. Instead, the album features more multi-layered tunes drawing from a range of sources.

Transcontinental Hustle builds on this and deepens it. It is an explosion of melody and colour from start to finish — held together by the strong dynamics of each song.

But there is a crucial factor to Gogol Bordello’s current relevance that even the most positive reviews of Transcontinental Hustle largely ignore. The world has changed around Gogol Bordello. And the band and its relationship to society has changed in response.

Gogol Bordello’s music has always been political, but growing racist attacks from First World governments has provoked a more explicit stance of resistance. Across Europe, Roma are facing extreme and growing persecution. Roma have, once more, become scapegoats of a capitalist economic crisis.

In France, the government has embarked on a campaign to round up and deport Roma. Even European Union officials have compared this to the actions of the Nazis.

In the face of this growing persecution, Transcontinental Hustle includes the defiant Roma pride song “Break the Spell”. (An angry acoustic performance of this by Hutz can be seen here.

Hutz attacks anti-Roma racism in such bitter lines as: “You love our music, but you hate our guts. And I know you still want me to ride the back of the bus.” “Like a pro”, Hutz spits, “I pack your dance floor. But you want me to come in and exit through back door.”

But, in the face of “all the lies about Roma”, Hutz is defiant. “But I’m a Roma wunderkind”, he says, “and I’m gonna break your spell.”

Hutz when sings, “Every road for me leads to the Bastille”, the implications are hard to miss.

“Immigraniada (We’re Coming Rough Every Time)” is a fast and furious middle finger to anti-immigrant polices everywhere. Like “Break the Spell”, the song is motivated by the bitter personal experience of the bands’ migrant members.

In the US, anti-migrant racist polices that strip so-called illegal migrants of their rights — and jail and deport them with no regard to the effect on families — are worsening. The same process is occurring across the First World.

Gogol Bordello’s response is not a plea for leniency for those who arrive in the US outside official channels. Far from an apology, the chorus insists: “To hell with your double standards, we’re coming rougher every time!”

Whatever laws governments pass, “Immigraniada” insists, those seeking to escape hell and win a better life will do whatever it takes in pursuit of that goal.

The relevance to Australia is clear: we have a government that jails those seeking freedom in concentration camps and justifies it as “discouraging” other desperate people from making the same attempt to reach safety. We are a nation of immigrants and there are much larger numbers of mainly European “illegals”, who have overstayed tourist visas, walking around freely.

But to hell with our double standards, the desperate will come rougher every time.

The lyrics are to the point: “In corridors full of tear gas, our destinies jammed every day. Like deleted scenes from Kafka, flushed down the bureaucratic drain.”

For those who were once desperate themselves, but who have since made their peace with the status quo, the song as a simple message: “All those who made it and quickly jaded, to them we got nothing to say.” “Talk to the hand”, in otherwords.

Hutz, who grew up in refugee camps across Eastern Europe, lays bare the refugee experience:

Frozen eyes, sweaty back. My family’s sleeping on a railroad track.
All my life I pack/unpack. But man I got to earn this buck. I gotta pay representation, to be accepted in a nation, where after efforts of a hero, ‘Welcome start again from zero’.

The film clip for “Immigraniada” (at top of this article) 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.”

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.

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.