A biting musical voice for Roma

August 28, 2010
Gogol Bordello Lead singer Eugene Hutz. Photo: Hardcandymusic.com

Trans-Continental Hustle
Gogol Bordello
Colombia/ DMZ

Review by Mat Ward

Gogol Bordello have always said their aim is to smuggle Roma music into mainstream Western society.

Their latest album, produced by former Beastie Boys DJ-turned-super-producer Rick Rubin, might just do that.

The US-based band, whose music combines elements of traditional Romani music with punk rock, is largely made up of Eastern European Roma immigrants who understand the long-standing persecution of their people.

Trans-Continental Hustle, the band’s fifth studio album, is a wild ride, bustling along like an out-of-control caravan with a bug-eyed, amphetamine-fuelled circus ringmaster at the reins.

It’s a belligerent, biting, beguiling sound that has earned Gogol Bordello some high-profile fans.

British comedian Phil Jupitus described the band affectionately as “a bit like The Clash having a fight with The Pogues in Eastern Europe”.

Madonna invited them onstage at London’s Live Earth concert to fuse their gypsy punk song “Lela Pala Tute” with her asinine hit “La Isla Bonita”. The whirling dervish twirls of Gogol Bordello violinist Sergei Riabtsev and the high-kicking blue suede boots of marvellously-moustached singer Eugene Hutz brought Madonna the ethnic credibility she no doubt craved.

She was so taken with Hutz’s charisma that she cast him as the protagonist in Filth and Wisdom, her somewhat-maligned debut as a feature film director.

Rubin broke the Red Hot Chili Peppers into the mainstream by stripping down and funking up their sound. He has produced some of the biggest names in pop music and now co-heads Columbia Records.

MTV has called him “the most important producer of the past 20 years” and he has been listed among Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World.

So Gogol Bordello have friends in high places — far more than can be said for their fellow Roma.

Across Europe, Roma face discrimination, evictions, physical attacks, firebombings and even sterilisation. The Czech Republic apologised last year for enforced sterilisations carried out on Roma as recently as 2007.

Last November, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Slovakia to pay compensation to eight Romani women who suspected the reason for their infertility might be that they were sterilised during their caesarean delivery in hospitals in the east of the country.

Even when Roma do manage to have children, they are often segregated into special schools for pupils with "mild mental disabilities".

So, on Trans-Continental Hustle, Hutz spits in his thick Ukranian accent: “Just because I come from a Roma camp on the hill/they put me in a school for mentally ill/opa, opa deedeeda, all their lies about Roma/Just because I do refuse to take your pill/any road I take leads to the Bastille/opportunities for me is a red carpet to hell/but I’m a Roma wunderkind — gonna break the spell.”

It’s an evil spell that will be hard to break with power so firmly on its side. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to dismantle 300 Roma settlements and expel their occupants from the country before the end of the year.

His critics say he is scapegoating the Roma to divert attention away from those who are really responsible for the economic problems in France. Jean-Pierre Grand, an MP from the ruling UMP party, has described the treatment of Roma as “rafles”, using the French word for “roundups”.

The word is associated with World War II roundup of Jews by French police on behalf of the occupying Nazis.

Hutz describes such pogroms in the rabble-rousing anthem “When Universes Collide”: “There was no letter, no family matter, and by the castes, we don’t divide/It was just as father told me, tonight the authorities, are preparing ethno-cleansing rite/Two helicopters, with machine guns, over the slums proudly will glide/so when the universes collide, son, don't get caught on the wrong side.”

Gogol Bordello know their music is so infectious that it should spread like incendiary fire. “One thing about them gypsies”, sings Hutz, “we never bored nobody”.

However, winning over fans is the least of their worries. As Hutz laments: “Like a pro I pack your dance floor/but you want me to come in and exit through the back door/You still want me to ride in the back of the bus/You love our music, but you hate our guts.”

It’s little wonder the lyrics are so bleak when even Romania wishes to disown Roma. The government-sponsored Inter-ethnic Barometer 2009 said 55% of the respondents believed Roma should not be allowed to travel abroad as they damaged the reputation of Romania.

But amid all the injustice, there is hope.

“Raise the knowledge”, barks Hutz in one of the many spine-tingling moments on Trans-Continental Hustle. “Revolution is internal, help yourself at any time/Evolution isn’t over, we’re about to use our mind/evolution is preparing all of us a maximum surprise.”

Below: “You love our music, but you hate our guts.” Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz performs an energetic, furious accoustic version of “Break the Spell” about anti-Roma racism..

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