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Nine-piece multicultural band brings politics to the party

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An Ethiopian, a Ukrainian and an American walk into a bar... and a helluva party breaks out.

That's the simple way to sum up a not-so-simple band, Gogol Bordello, a nine-member ensemble featuring musicians from seven different countries who fuse Ukrainian folk melodies with Slavic and Western rock instrumentation to create the ultimate party music: gypsy punk.

And although the band is known for its out-of-control live shows, mustachioed frontman Eugene Hutz's lyrics touch on a variety of topics, from the oppression of gypsies to global politics, ensuring that people are learning a little something even as they are hoisting their drinks in the air, says bassist Tommy T. Gobena.

"The funny thing is that everybody loves gypsy music, but nobody has a positive image of gypsies. They are great entertainers for weddings and stuff, that's their trade, but nobody wants them around," he says.

"Even the idea of gypsy is you want to hold on to your wallets. That's what we're fighting every day. The funny thing is that it hasn't gone away. It's rampant and aggressive all over the world. In Turkey, there is the oldest Roman gypsy neighbourhood in the world and they want to bulldoze it (to build new townhouses)."

The multicultural band's embracing of the gypsy culture is mainly the result of Hutz, who grew up in Ukraine and lived with his father's gypsy ancestors in the mountains for a year following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in his hometown of Kyiv. Upon his return, he discovered heavy metal and punk, and formed the band Uksusnik (Bitter Faces) before leaving the country to travel around Europe when he was 18.

He ended up in New York in 1998, assembling Gogol Bordello with a group of European expats the same year to play Russian weddings. They soon began amalgamating traditional Eastern European music with punk and other Western music.

Gogol Bordello's mix of old and new, traditional and modern, along with its unpredictable live shows, earned it a cult following among New York's hipster crowd. (Winnipeggers will get to witness the spectacle when the band plays the Burton Cummings Theatre Saturday, or they can see it on-screen in the new documentary Gogol Bordello: Non-Stop, playing at the Lo Pub Friday at 8 p.m. -- movie buffs may recognize Hutz from his turn as a malapropism-spouting tour guide in 2005's Everything Is Illuminated.)

Los Angeles label Side One Dummy released the group's 2005 breakthrough, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, and 2007's Super Taranta!

Gobena, who lives in Washington D.C., joined the group in 2006.

"I checked them out and thought it was the most unbelievable thing. They called me for an hour-long audition and I ended up playing seven or eight hours. I never left," he says with a laugh.

Gobena, 38, was born in Ethiopia and lived there until he was 16, when his family emigrated to the United States. He soon hooked up with other Ethiopian expats in Washington and New York, between which he divides his time, and continued to perform traditional music from his home country.

Next month he will release his debut solo album, The Prester John Sessions, which mixes traditional African music with Western music using the 6/8 groove he calls chik-chika ("it sounds like the way you say it," he says) as the foundation.

The mostly instrumental album was inspired by the Graham Hancock book The Sign and the Seal, about the British journalist's search for the lost Ark of the Covenant, which he believes is in Ethiopia. Prester John is a legendary king who may or may not have existed in the 12th and 13th centuries in the country.

"For me, there's a lot of music I haven't even discovered in Ethiopia. For a country that's not so big, they have 88 different languages. People who live just miles away from each other speak a different language.

"It's a very unique place in the world. As they say, it's the oldest place. It's the source of humanity," Gobena says, adding he hopes his music will help people gain a broader knowledge about the country, in the same way Gogol Bordello fans have come to learn more about gypsies.

"What you see on TV is a lot of negative images; there's so much more than that. Even that time when we went through hardships, there was so much more. The drought was in 1984. I lived there at that time (in the capital city, Addis Ababa) and you would hear of hardships, but we've never seen people like that on the streets or near us... We definitely needed help, but only people in those areas needed help."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2009 E9

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