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Gogol Bordello is like a mini-United Nations, except that its members actually get along and really accomplish something - like creating a manic gypsy punk rhythm that sounds like an Old World cousin of ska, with a bit of flamenco, Brecht-ian cabaret, Italian spaghetti drama, and dub thrown in for good measure.
Imagine The Pogues trading in their Irish heritage for an eastern European dance party, and you can begin to understand Gogol Bordello's charms. And their Ukraine-born musical madman leader Eugene Hutz has much better teeth than Shane McGowan.
The 10-year-old New York City-based band features a ragtag collection of nine gifted musicians hailing from around the globe - Scotland, Russia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, the USâ€¦ and yes, you knew there had to be an Israeli somewhere in there.
Givatyim-raised guitarist Oren Kaplan has been with Gogol almost from the beginning.
"Eugene and I lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn," said Kaplan during a phone call from New York, days after the band had returned from an extensive tour of South America. "He was playing with a trio in a small club. It was awesome. I went up to talk to him and we became friends. A year later, I joined the band."
The 43-year-old Kaplan arrived at his instrument of choice relatively late, not picking up a guitar until he was 17. "I sort of found music by chance and just fell in love with it - the whole British new wave sound of Joy Division and bands like that, it really opened the doors," he said.
After his army service, Kaplan pursued a musical career, and, during the '90s, played with a variety of high-profile artists, including Rami Fortis and Yirmy Kaplan. Branching out on his own, he experimented in a collaboration with Rea Mochiach on an avant garde album called Music For Babies on the Third Ear label. In 1996, Kaplan decided to test the musical waters in New York.
"I guess it's something every musician dreams about, moving to New York. I didn't really plan on staying; I just went for a couple months. But stuff happens, I met some people and I'm still there," he said.
Among that stuff was a three-record stint with New York indie legends Firewater, and the fateful meeting with the charismatic Hutz.
A wandering gypsy in the truest sense, Hutz has been on the go since being evacuated to western Ukraine in 1986 following the Chernobyl disaster. Living as a refugee in Poland, Hungary, Austria and Italy before moving to the United States in 1993, he experienced life as an outsider himself.
GOGOL BORDELLO'S music and theatrical stage show captures the experiences of the New York immigrant diaspora through a mix of debauchery, humor, and costumes with a flair for the absurd.
Finding like-minded spirits in the New York music scene, Hutz initially played straight gypsy music at Russian weddings, but when the fledgling band began incorporating hyper rock elements and explosive ensemble sounds they began to attract a following in the New York underground. According to published interviews with Hutz, the band was named after Ukrainian Nikolai Gogol, who "smuggled" Ukrainian culture into Russian society, an act which Hutz intended to do with Gypsy/East-European music in the English-speaking world.
Around the same time, Hutz turned into a local celebrity, spurred by regular Thursday night DJ spots at downtown club Mehanata, where he played Ukrainian, gypsy, rai, and flamenco music for an exuberant, plate-smashing crowd consisted of trendy hipsters and old-time Ukrainians and Russians.
The band evolved into its current lineup, including violins, accordions, backup singers and general mayhem, and by 2003, a debut album, Voi-La Intruder, produced by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds drummer Jim Sclavunos, had emerged. Since then, it's been nonstop touring and recording for the band, whose members have become darlings of the indie scene. They've performed at all the major festivals, including Lollapalooza, Coachella and Bonnaroo in the US and Reading and Leeds in the UK, and, in 2007, Hutz and violinist Sergey Ryabtsev joined Madonna on stage at the London Live Earth concert for a performance of "La Isla Bonita / Lela Pala Tute."
Despite the whirlwind experienced by Kaplan, he and Hutz took time earlier in the decade to develop an electronic sister project to Gogol Bordello, called JUF (Jewishe Ukranishe Froindschaft), incorporating Balkan brass grooves, dub, flamenco, reaggaton, and punk. The result was an electronic Gypsy record released in 2004.
Hutz has also developed a sideline film career, starring in 2005 in the Liev Schreiber movie Everything Is Illuminated, a drama about a young Jewish man who travels to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather during the Holocaust.
Hutz also appears in Madonna's 2008 directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom, playing an immigrant who becomes a cross-dressing dominatrix to support his rock-music career.
WHILE GOGOL Bordello's four albums and vigorous stage show may give the impression that it's non-stop party time, there's a method to the musical madness. According to its Website manifesto, Gogol Bordello's philosophy is that music "makes it possible to make the contradictions of life sound harmonious, at least for the duration of a songâ€¦ music and art can transform negative energy to positive and inspire individual action."
With influences ranging from all around the globe, according to Kaplan, the key to the band's success and its ability to transmit its message to the audience is its diversity.
"That's what makes the band what it is - all the different styles and flavors that the members bring to it from all over the world; that's where we get our strength from," he said.
With so much action taking place onstage, and with one of rock's most vivacious front men doing his job, Kaplan added that it was his role in the band to be the visual stationary presence.
"It makes life easier not to be the focus of attention," he laughed. "I tend to stay in the background. I'm generally a shy kind of guy, and there are nine people onstage; some are more flamboyant than others; there's a lot going on."
Whether there's a stage in Israel built to contain Gogol Bordello's enthusiasm will be tested on December 19 and 20 when the band performs at the Hangar and Barby clubs in Tel Aviv, respectively.
"Four or five years ago we played two shows in Israel, but it wasn't so successful; it wasn't this lineup. This time it will be different," said Kaplan.
Indeed, this time the band is still riding the heels of its 2007 breakout album Super Taranta, which propelled toward some semblance of mainstream acceptance and high-profile appearances on the David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel late-night shows.
For the guitarist, returning to Israel is a festive homecoming, and while he's excited about performing for a "local" audience - including members of his immediate and extended family - he's just as thrilled about taking his band mates around his old haunts.
"They all said they want to go to Jerusalem, so we'll be doing that, but I'm going to take them to Jaffa and some of my favorite places," he said.
But perhaps the favorite place will be on both nights when Gogol Bordello hits the stage to launch its musical extravaganza. Bring your own plates to smash.