‘Jewish’ Eugene is a true gypsy king

Jewish Telegraph, September 2005

GOGOL Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz got used to being a victim of antisemitism growing up in the Ukraine.
Surprising really as Eugene isn’t even Jewish.
Eugene, the creator of Gypsy Punk, told me from his New York home: “We were always being mistaken for a Jewish family. People knew we weren’t Ukrainian but they think you are Jewish before gypsy.
“Until I was 15, we often had things like ‘All Jews must die’ scribbled on our front door.”
Eugene left Ukraine in 1989 and spent three years in refugee camps in Europe “washing windows of cars at intersections”.
He said: “I always had my guitar with me. A lot of my material was written around that time. There was nothing else to do in the refugee camps.
“I had always wanted to go to America, particularly New York because I loved the musical spirit.”
Eugene grew up with gypsy music, but he says his marrying of it with punk was purely “instinctual” (sic).
He said: “I first heard punk when I was 13/14. It spoke to me so much that I went totally bonkers. Gypsy punk is the extreme sound of the east mixed with the extreme sound of the west.”
When I commented that it sounded very similar to klezmer music, he replied: “Not many westerners can tell the difference between klezmer and gypsy. There are elements that make it sound like neighbours.”
Eugene nicknamed his band Gogol Bordello as the JUF (Jewish Ukrainian Freundschaft) because of the ethnic make-up.
At times Gogol Bordello has included Jewish members beat master Oren Kaplan, saxophonist Ori Kaplan, Israelis Victoria Hanna, Rea Mochiach (bass) and Tamir Muskat.
“Whenever people looked at the band, they’d say, ‘Wow, Ukrainians and Jews don’t get along’,” Eugene laughed. “So it’s a kind of humourous comment on the new history of time.”
He added: “Gypsy culture adapts to any new found home, but rejects assimilation and never loses its identity. This also goes for Gogol Bordello.
“We may tell our story in English, but the story remains what it is, that cultural revolution is a contagious state of mind.”
Away from the music, Eugene makes his acting debut in Everything is Illuminated, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s book about the search for his Jewish heritage in Ukraine.
Hutz, who had a hit single in the Ukraine charts when he was 15, landed the role of narrator Alex after a chance meeting with director Liev Schreiber to discuss the film’s music.
Upon meeting Hutz, Schreiber had a ‘Eureka’ moment and cast Eugene.
Everything Is Illuminated, which stars Elijah Wood as Safran Foer, opens in cinemas next month.
“I had knowledge of what it was like for Jews back then,” Eugene said. “But Ukraine is not 100 per cent like that anymore. The history is stronger in one part but time has moved on. There is more discrimination against gypsies now.
“I’m very verbal like Alex. People use language to the ultimate degree — it’s free. It’s true humour and energy. You can’t put a price on it.”
Eugene says he embarked on a similar journey to Jonathan Safran Foer.
“I made the same trip to find out where my family came from. It was more organic than the Jewish search. I understood that there would be negative effects but my rebellious spirit was ready to embrace that.”
Eugene says he would be “proud to represent gypsies when appropriate and helpful. I’m a big promoter of gypsy music and have brought it to the attention of a whole generation here.
“I will do what it takes to make positive changes to the community. What matters most to me is sticking to my guns and the quality of my work — the mobilisation of cultural forces.”
Gogol Bordello’s third album, Gypsy Punks, was produced by the legendary Steve Albini.

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Mike Cohen

Jewish Telegraph deputy editor and arts editor. Email Mcohen@jewishtelegraph.com with your Jewish arts stories