Bands of Gypsy

By FRANKLIN SOULTS  |  September 25, 2007

That becomes clear when you compare the two bands’ new CDs — Balkan Beat Box’s second album, Nu-Med (JDub), and Gogol Bordello’s fourth, Super Taranta! (Side One Dummy). Each expands on a breakthrough disc — the sumptuous Balkan Beat Box and the astounding Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, respectively. Each weds 21st-century styles to traditional minor-key melodies and instrumentation (horns for Balkan Beat Box, accordion and violin for Gogol Bordello). They even share an interest in Jamaican dub and a fancy for Spanish flamenco. There’s nothing surprising about these similarities. Israeli-born saxophonist and Balkan Beat Box co-founder Ori Kaplan was a former member of Gogol Bordello, and Israeli-born percussionist/producer Muskat cut a 2004 album on Stinky Records with the group under the heading Gogol Bordello vs. Tamir Muskat: J.U.T. (for “Jewish-Ukrainishe Freundschaft”).

Yet Super Taranta!, for all its Gypsy heritage, is a rock album, steeped in punk and tinged with the taste of metal. Although it doesn’t attain the career-defining cumulative power of 2005’s Gypsy Punks, it’s a broader, more intricate disc, basking in a bootstrap triumph that has garnered Hütz a 30-minute NPR interview, a DVD documentary, and a new friendship with Madonna (not to mention his role in the film Everything Is Illuminated). Nu-Med is a transnational jazz-dance album, rooted in hip-hop beats and DJ electronics, and turned far more toward the Middle East than toward Eastern Europe. And whereas Balkan Beat Box was a New York studio project between Muskat and Kaplan, Nu-Med expands the project into a full-fledged borderless band, with Yemeni-born singer/MC Tomer Yosef stepping to the fore the way an MC should.

Unfortunately, this parting of the musical ways also seems to augur a parting of company. “I played around with that kind of music for one year and got bored as fuck with it and moved on,” says Hütz of Balkan Beat Box. “That’s fine. They can be coattail riders, or original. I know what I choose.”

“I think Eugene kind of got a bit worried that Balkan Beat Box took off so quickly,” Muskat replies. “It might be the history with Ori being in the band and forming another band. I’m not really sure. But it’s probably some kind of insecurity. I don’t see any way how these bands are even stepping on each other if something is the opposite; we’re just embracing each other’s music and culture and just helping getting fans for each other all around the world.”

Certainly in this corner of the world we like to call “America,” the two groups’ new albums and thrilling live shows sound like opposite means to the same end. “Mixing up a Moroccan singer with a Romanian hook is no science for us: it’s just what we live,” says Muskat. “But for an American, you know, Bloomington-based 40-year-old mom, or even a 16-year-old kid, this is like, ‘What?!’ You know, ‘How do you even start to do this? ’ ”

In a country where the government has made my-way-or-the-highway a doctrine, and where popular music is as stagnant as CD sales suggest, the political import of this cultural hybridization is obvious. Whereas Balkan Beat Box mostly let their music do the talking, Gogol Bordello address the theme in songs like “Wonderlust King.” (Message: travel.) And even when the theme is just subtext, it still inspires Hütz more than cold vodka or hot girls.

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