Gogol Bordello’s ‘Hustle’ & Flow

Music critic Robert Christgau has described multi-continental punk band Gogol Bordello as “the world’s most visionary band.”  For years, Gogol Bordello’s self-described “gypsy punks” have drawn upon influences from cultures all over the world, primarily Eastern European countries like Romania, and mixed them together to create energetic, melancholy and fiery tunes of a multi-ethnic nature.

Taking their motto of “countries without borders” to heart, the band refuses to confine itself to the stage during their unpredictable performances and loves to interact with the crowd; crowd-surfing on giant parade drums, singing while on security guards’ shoulders and climbing up balconies to sing with fans are all common occurrences at Gogol Bordello shows.  Their new album “Trans-Continental Hustle,” which hit stores April 27, stays true to the signature Gogol charm of broken English and inventive vocals.

Gogol’s latest album has a clear Latin American influence as the album’s 13 songs all mix Spanish and Portuguese phrases and instrumentals into their traditional Eastern European punk feeling. Listening to a Gypsy violin delectably swing over the heavy strumming of Portuguese guitar almost creates a culture within itself. The instrumentals are not as wildly ingenious as those in past albums (let’s face it — it’s pretty hard to top “Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike”), but the band’s latest delivery still offers a fun, unpredictable ride.

“TCH” gives the listener a surprisingly potent feel for Latin American life, if only through the style of its instrumentals. It opens with “Pala Tute,” which intertwines the discovery of love and passion through the discovery of passion for music. Hutz remarks on Latin culture, “Here is a guitarra/For you my little chavo/If you slave to kissing/You gotta play this thing.”  The song’s lusty energy sets the rest of the album up with the vibe of an ethnic party that Gogol is so well-known for.

As a boy, Hutz and his family fled their hometown in Boyarka, near Kiev, after hearing of the Chernobyl meltdown. A seven-year trek through Eastern European refugee camps, one which led to Vermont, of all places, provided Hütz with an immigrant experience that permeates his songwriting. You can see this especially in the rollicking melody of “Break the Spell,” where Hutz touches on the issue of xenophobia and the alienation of immigrants. He accuses an unidentified xenophobe with, “You love our music/But you hate our guts/I know you still want me/To ride in back of the bus.”  The band’s violinist, Sergey Ryabtsev, steadily belts out gypsy chants during the chorus.

Hutz spends a lot of his free time traveling around the world. The self-named wanderlust king has lived in Ukraine, Vermont, New York, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, to name only a few. “TCH” plays on this particular trait of the band with the fast cascading beats of “My Companjera.” Hutz inquires after a lost friend, “Where are you now my companjera?/I’m beating bricks from town to town/Where are you now my sonidera?/I’m at my final down.”

A band known primarily for its wildly energetic instrumentals and captivating stage presence, Gogol has also produced its share of the more melancholy. While the raw, enthusiastic emotion in Hutz’s growly voice is an invaluable element to every swinging Gogol song, these more subdued tunes tend to bring this emotional factor to its full potential. “Sun Is On My Side” is perhaps the most heartrending rainy-day song Gogol has put out yet.  Hutz laments, “My half breed odyssey/Your orphan prophecy/Our destiny we will not hide/But when the sun comes up/When the sun comes up/It will be on your side.” At each chorus, the rest of the band lows out a slow gypsy funeral tune that drapes the song with the eerie idea of a dark gypsy lullaby.

One of Gogol’s more redeeming qualities is its frequent use of melodic nonsense words and clever foreign phrases, some of which, like “Super Taranta,” have a tendency to recur in many Gogol songs.  The bizarre “Uma Menina” centers on the idea of rebirth through travel and makes the most use of syllabic artfulness in the album; Hutz bops, “Between the rivers, yeah, of Tzin and Ganga, woah/There was a once bonanza chunga-changa, hoh.”  Most of the song is repetition of syllables that Hutz has twisted into a steady rhythm; the end result is actually pretty catchy.

The anticipation of “Trans-Continental Hustle” has had the Gogol Bordello fanbase anxiously afidgeting for months. Acknowledging this, the band turned the Brooklyn Bowl inside out on the night of the album’s release and streamed it live via their Facebook page so the whole “Gogol familia,” as they call their fans, could watch. “TCH” takes Gogol Bordello into a somewhat unfamiliar style as it hugs closer to Latin American influence than it has in previous albums, but the songs quickly catch on. It’s got plenty of what has plunged Gogol into transcontinental superstardom; the intertwining of cultures, raw musical passion, free-roaming vocals and the familiar enthusiastic growl of Hutz’s voice we’ve come to appreciate so much. And if “Pala Tute” isn’t stuck in your head by the second time you listen to it, you clearly don’t have the volume turned up enough.