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Eugene Hutz of the Folk-Punk Band Gogolbordello: Cultural Politics and Pop Culture

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Eugene Hutz, Pop Culture, and the Romani Image

Guthrie Brunk-London

Since its conception in 1999, the folk-punk band GogolBordello has become exceedingly popular in the American and international Indie music scene. Gogol Bordello defines itself as a “gypsy-punk band”, and it’s lead-singer Eugene Hutz has appeared both as a Ukrainian translator in the 2005 film “Everything is illuminated” and as himself in “Kill Yr Idols”- a documentary about the No Wave movement in underground rock music. Consciously or not, Hutz has emerged as a face and voice representing the Romani people for a generation of American Indie music listeners. In this paper, I will examine contentious statements made by Hutz in a 2007 Interview on the NPR show ‘Fresh Air!’ that serve as an example of the information and misinformation surrounding Roma in modern mainstream culture.

In “Balkan Roma: History, Politics, and Performance” Carol Silverman characterizes the place of “Gypsy” culture as represented in modern media:

In the last fifteen years, as the fusion music terms Gypsy Punk and Balkan Beats have proliferated and Gypsy motifs in clothing have become fashionable, Gypsy music has become fashionable…Many consumers profess to know who and what Gypsies are, and what Gypsy music is. Some audience members repeat stereotypical generalizations drawing on a plethora of written, visual, and oral formulations from the last few centuries.s

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Are Silverman’s ideas about what he sees as a superficial understanding and preoccupation with Gypsy culture by the masses applicable to the popularity of Gogol Bordello? If so, in what way does Gogol Bordello work to deter or perpetuate mass ignorance? In a 2007 Interview with ‘Fresh Air!’ on NPR, Hutz makes several statements about Gypsy culture: his personal involvement with Gypsy culture, and Gypsy culture at-large. Importantly, in this interview Hutz mainly uses the term ‘Gypsy’ to refer to Roma people, although in one instance he does use the term ‘Roma’.

The general intelligence and emotional life of gypsies is very different. Everybody talks about gypsy spirirt and its become this cliché. But the more important thing is gypsy psychology, and its something nobody can really describe it because gypsies wouldn’t care to describe it to you, and other people wouldn’t understand it. Something has to do with the immediacy of their perception… The word for tomorrow and yesterday is the same actually.

In his essay “Duty and Beauty, Possession and Truth” Romani scholar and linguist Ian Hancock states that misinformed ideas about gypsy language facilitate racist assumptions about the lack of morals in gypsy culture. Specifically, Hancock cites the unfounded notion that Romani language lacks words for certain vital human concepts, such as duty, beauty, possession and truth, and the cultural repercussions this notion has had for the Roma. Hancock sites examples of this misconception in various writings, one example being the novel ‘Orlando’ by Virginia Woolf , in which a gypsy eating bread exclaims “How good it is to eat” because gypsies have “no word for beautiful”. Another cited example of what Hancock sees as misinformation about gypsy language, and by extension gypsy culture, is Hutz’s statement made by in his 2007 NPR interview.

One individual who actually presents himself as a romani and as a romani speaker (he is neither) is eugene hütz of the band Gogol Bordello. he told national public radio (in an interview on 15 august 2007) that our language has the same word for yesterday and tomorrow – a notion picked up from reading George Borrow.

Hancock clearly sees Hutz’s comments as perpetuating misinformation about Romani culture. He goes on to condemn Hutz’s ignorance, stating that “No Romani would say such a thing”

It is foolish to imagine that any human group is unable to express the difference linguistically between yesterday and tomorrow, or that the inability to do so is, as he claimed, ‘important for the ‘Gypsy psychology’. no romani would say such a thing. What has been misunderstood as meaning both ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ is the word taisa (with variants) which means ‘morning’ (from the Greek ταχια ‘morning’). the word is then modified with other words if necessary according to dialect in order to specify which morning or day is meant.

In these statements Hancock provides evidence for Hutz’s outsider perspective on the Romani people, essentially saying that Hutz is not authentically Romani.

He does not comment in detail, however, on Hutz notions about “Gypsy psychology”, but these notions do seem to be the same generalizations about the Roma that Hancock points to as a form of racism.

Earlier in the interview, and before these comments, however, Hutz acknowledges misleading stereotypes and “exploitation” of the Gypsy image by modern bands.

And I also didn’t want to do it in a stupid way as some bands do it.

I didn’t want it to be exploitation of stereotype in any rate.

He then links his own style of “Gypsy music” to the music of Bela Bartcok.

The turning point it was for me the music of Bela Bartock the Hungarian Composer, who worked with worked with a lot of ethnical music turning it into his own avant-garde music. So after getting a load of how he processes that information, I was able to step up to it, without quoting, and without just re-using the tunes.

In “The Gypsy Caravan: From the real to Imagined Gypsies in Western music and film”, Malvinni makes the argument that Bartok’s ideas about the dichotomy between Hungarian peasant music and gypsy music were unfounded, and products of his nationalist bias. Bartok “refuses to acknowledge that the tradition of Gypsy performance of the Hungarian popular art song (to concede this term to Bartok, for the sake of the argument) has its origins with Gypsies ”. While Bartok acknowledged his appropriation of Hungarian Peasant music, he “refused to equate hugarian music proper with especially urban Gypsy music ”. According to Malvinni, “In Bartok’s estimation, Gypsy music represents a contaminated, mass-audience tourist-traffic music. ” But Malvinni, citing the problems with Bartok’s seperation of Peasant Music from Gypsy music argues that “the works [Bartok] is most famous for are unthinkable without reference to their gypsy components. ”. All in all, when looked at in the context of Hutz’s statements regarding Gypsy culture and Bartok’s influence on Hutz’s own music, Malvinni’s arguments are curious in that they highlight unintentional irony in Hutz’s comments. While Hutz cannot be blamed for drawing influence from Bartok’s music it seems ironic that in addition to making an erroneous statement about the Romani language, and therefore perpetuating long-held misinformation about the lack of certain concepts in Romani culture, he cites as a major influence a composer who refused to acknowledge Romani influence on his music. In the very least, it does not prove the authenticity of Hutz’s prospective.

Notably, Hutz’s makes several comments about ‘DNA’ implying that “Gypsy DNA’ is gives one a certain musical ability and perspective on the world. These comments, while made in a very colloquial manner, are Hutz’s attempt to authenticate his identity as Romani, while acknowledging that he did not spend his whole childhood with the Roma.

The process of getting back into my own.. you know.. ‘DNA music’ took us some years… So after a year of living with them, maybe because I was so young and impressionable, but I think your DNA is going to play a part in it too, my identification psychologically changed actually.

While Hutz does mention in the interview that he is ethnically Romani, he says only that his grandmother is Romani . Although impossible to verify, Hutz implies that he is part Romani, contrary to Hancock’s statement that Hutz is not Romani. Although not specified, it is also implied that Hutz only spent one or two years living with the Roma. His comments about DNA are a clear attempt to give his statements about Roma more legitimacy, yet his mentions of DNA echo ideas of ‘scientific’ racism and eugenics.

All in all, Hutz’s comments contain misinformation about Romani language, generalizations about Romani culture, and perpetuate long held stereotypes.

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