Upon arriving to the melting pot
I got penciled in as a goddam white
Now that I’m categorized
Officer gets me naturalized
O-yo-yoi legalize me!
O-yo-you legalize me!
So go the rousing words to “Immigrant Punk,” the song about the legal woes of the latest wave of newcomers to our shores by Eugene Hutz, the Lower East Side-based Ukrainian-born musician who fronts the rising “gypsy punk” band, Gogol Bordello. Long a fixture on the alternative music festival circuit, Mr. Hutz’s all-immigrant band, formed in 1998, is on the verge of becoming an international crossover sensation. Witness Hutz’s appearance, along with that of his gypsy Russian confrere, Gogol Bordello violinist Sergey Ryabtsev, in a typically free-wheeling stage show at the recent Live Earth telecast as Madonna’s special guests.
Nevertheless, as Mr. Hutz, who is one-quarter gypsy, emphasized in an interview at Cafe Mogador (one of his favorite East Side hangouts), pleased though he is by Gogol Bordello’s success, he is proudest of his role as New York’s ambassador of gypsy culture.
“We’re definitely getting known,” said the outlandish musician, wearing a camouflage shirt opened to his waist and cherry red pants for the occasion, along with his trademark walrus mustache. “And that’s cool, but my heart still belongs to New York. This is where it all came together for me. New York is my workshop. Besides.” he continued, with a wry smile, “this is the first place I didn’t have to get the hell away from.”
Mr. Hutz, who is 34, who hails from Obolon, a suburb of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, was in an understandable hurry to get away when he emigrated to the United States 16 years ago: the city is located near Chernobyl, site of the infamous 1986 Soviet nuclear plant catastrophe.
The first stop for the musically-minded immigrant was Burlington, Vermont, where he settled temporarily with his mother. Then, in 1997 Mr. Hutz moved to New York City, where he tarried briefly in Brooklyn before relocating to his spiritual home, the Lower East Side.
The next year, he formed his band of gypsy players, which includes two Russians, Mr. Ryabtsev and Yuri Lemeshev, and two Israelis, Oren Kaplan and Eliot Ferguson. Together, they strove toward realizing their concept for a new kind of music that would fuse the hypnotic rhythms of the Old World with the raucous energy of the New.
Or, as Mr. Hutz, who, according to Gogol Bordello’s official credits, plays acoustic guitar and fire bucket, put it: “What we wanted to do is the same thing that Gogol did for European literature: We wanted to sneak a bit of Eastern European, gypsy consciousness into the American mainstream.”
The rest, as they say, is gypsy punk history. Now that the world seems to be having its gypsy moment, what with the recent success of the film Gypsy Caravan and the gypsy opera that director Emil Kusturica brought to Paris (among other Romanesque happenings), Mr. Hutz couldn’t be happier.
Along with improving the image and self-image of his gypsy friends, Mr. Hutz has also helped explode some of the myths specifically involving Ukrainians, who tend to be on the low end of the European cultural totem pole, according to his long-time friend, Yuri Masnj, an artist and first-generation Ukrainian-American.
“There are two stereotypes for Ukrainians,” said Mr. Masnj over drinks at Kasimir, a Lower East Side watering hole popular with the newly upwardly mobile diaspora set. Joining Mr. Masnj was another one of Mr. Hutz’s East Side buddies, Borys Rankin, a computer graphics artist who also is of Ukrainian extraction. “In fact,” continued Mr. Masnj, who has known Mr. Hutz since the multi-talented musician-actor moved to New York in 1998, “the Ukrainian diaspora community has a deep and rich tradition in the arts, and the older generation that I know of is proud that one of its youth is being recognized for his music and is reaching such a wide audience.
“I think he uses his Ukrainian-gypsy-immigrant experience as a platform to reach all kinds of people,” Mr. Masnj continued, “and in that sense I suppose he has become a folk hero to a much larger audience, and we’re proud of him for that. But,” he said, smiling, “we try not to let it go to his head.
“We keep him grounded,” nodded Mr. Rankin, who smilingly recalled a vodka-fuelled visit the threesome made to Soyuzivka, the upstate resort that caters to the Ukrainian-American crowd.
When Mr. Hutz is not touring or acting in independent films — he starred in 2004′s acclaimed Everything Is Illuminated, based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer — he can generally be found at Mehanata, a bar-cum-dance hall on Ludlow Street popular with both the new immigrant crowd and local jivesters, where he plays a regular Thursday night gig.
“I hired Hutz to be a DJ back in 1999 and he’s been here ever since,” said Alex Sasho, the owner of the Mehanata, which is also known as “The Bulgarian Bar,” on a recent, typically jam-packed night when Mr. Hutz was manning the turntable.
“Of course,” said the shaggy-haired Bulgarian proprietor, as Mr. Hutz served up a highly danceable fusillade of songs by such other gypsy-related bands as Rumania’s Fanfare Ciocalia, France’s La Phaze and Serbia’s Kultur Shock, and the mixed crowd of mostly young, newly minted New Yorkers cavorted along, “I’ve had to throw him out a few times. But that’s okay, as long as keeps packing them in.”
And pack them in Mr Hutz does. Mr. Sasho, a documentarian who came into Mehanata one night when Mr. Hutz was spinning, counted nationals from 34 different countries. (Insofar as he was able to see — Mehanata has a lot of dark corners).
“I can’t stand bars where people just stand around,” said Maria Arenlind, an actress from Kristianstad, Sweden, who moved to New York from London earlier this year to continue her studies at the Strasberg Institute, and now swears by The Bulgarian. “But this place is different,” said the svelte Ms. Arenlind, who bears something of a resemblance to Jeanne Moreau. “It’s so much more alive and vibrant. And Eugene really knows how to make the place move. Listen to all the different sounds he plays,” she said — or rather shouted — over the din. “To me, this place is the real New York!”
Two months later, following Mr Hutz’s and Mr. Ryabtsev’s much-talked-about appearance with Madonna, which is as close to acceptance in the mainstream musical world as it comes, the apparently inexhaustible Mr. Hutz was back at Mehanata for the after party for his latest sold-out concert at Irving Plaza. “Look at that guy,” said Mr. Sasho, as the charismatic, rail-thin musician, clad in a star-spangled shirt, slithered around, accepting back slaps and posing for cellphone photos with his devoted musical “subjects.” “He’s a leader to these people,” Mr. Sasho said.
Of course we immigrants gonna sing all night long
Don’t you know the singing salves the troubled soul
You gotta dictionary kicking around?
Look up the immigrant immigrant punk!
Two days, one more sold out concert, one more riotous after party, and (by his estimation), twenty-some-odd interviews and photo shoots later, Mr. Hutz was in an expansive mood as his personal caravan prepared to leave for a concert in Romania.
“This is definitely my time,” Mr. Hutz acknowledged over a hastily gobbled breakfast at Café Yaffa, on St. Mark’s Place, around the corner from where he lives.
“But it’s not just my time, it’s our time,” he said, referring to all gypsies everywhere.
And then, with a toothy grin and a peace sign, he was gone.