Longtime self-proclaimed “gypsy punk” band Gogol Bordello had just finished recording their first new album in five years in February. A few days later, Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, where band leader Eugene Hütz was born and raised.
“We realized that we needed to involve more Ukrainian voices,” says Hütz. “So we are adding collaborations with Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan and singer Sasha [Zaritska] of the KAZKA group.
Gogol Bordello, who kicks off an extensive US tour at the Royale in Boston on May 4, also used the band’s social media feed to promote ArtDopomoga, which sells artwork created in Ukraine during the current war.
“I’ve always kept my ties with the artists and musicians there, because they’re my friends I grew up with: painters, sculptors, fashion designers,” says Hütz. “It has been reused for the time being to strengthen Ukrainian defense and resistance. But also, moral support really goes a long way. When people are in the harsh realm of combat, trying to find a safe place for their children, they can feel fragmented and abandoned and completely disconnected from the world. Any glimpse of the memory rekindles their hope that the world will come to the rescue.
Earlier this month, Hütz and Gogol Bordello violinist Sergey Ryabtsev (a Russian-born invasion critic) released a benefit single with Primus bassist Les Claypool that pays tribute to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Zelensky: The Man With The Iron Balls” also features Sean Lennon, Billy Strings and Police drummer Stewart Copeland. It may have a catchy title, but “I don’t see anything irreverent in it,” says Hütz. “’Steelballs’ is a common Ukrainian expression of someone who is admired. Les was really shaken up when this whole disaster started, and we both agreed that we needed to release some affirming music that comes from an insightful place so people know what’s going on.
At the heart of Gogol Bordello’s sound are Hütz’s Roma origins mixed with punk rock, which he says was like a “cultural humanitarian corridor to the rest of the world” in his youth. (He was in the audience at a 1989 Sonic Youth show in Kyiv that the band just released to benefit World Central Kitchen.) He and his family left Ukraine in 1989 after the Chernobyl collapse and went lived in a series of European refugee camps. before arriving in the United States. Seeing the current flood of refugees fleeing the war, Hütz points out that “the current situation is much more extreme, but at the same time, once again, the Ukrainian people are fighting for the survival of their identity, which they do for hundreds of years against invaders.
The sight of Ukrainian refugees also affected another Ukrainian-American musician, Julian Kytasty. A third-generation master of the lute-like bandura, Kytasty’s father and grandfather led an ensemble known as the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus, which was put together by refugees who arrived in Detroit in 1949. .
“The group was operating in kyiv in the first months of the German occupation, then in 1942 they were put on a train and shipped to Hamburg to make parts for submarines. They managed to keep the group in the camps of people displaced after the war, and the band continues to this day,” says Kytasty, who was named Honored Artist of Ukraine at a ceremony in New York featuring Zelenskyy last September. Kytasty appears at a benefit concert produced by Journeys in Sound at Swedenborg Chapel, Cambridge on May 1 which also features a trio of Ukrainian Berklee students as well as klezmer, South African and Iranian musicians.
Kytasty’s first visit to Ukraine was the same year as that fateful Sonic Youth show: 1989, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. “You could see the plainclothes KGP guys on the sidelines of events taking pictures of people, and you really understood how oppressive everything must have been a few months before,” he recalls. “But it was a time when things were bubbling and it also showed that the work we had done in the United States and other countries to safeguard the bandura tradition meant that it could be very quickly reintroduced in Ukraine – because at the time this tradition was almost entirely unknown there.
Although many of his songs are hundreds of years old, Kytasty finds the lyrics to be straight out of today’s headlines. One, titled “Song of Truth and Falsehood”, dates from the late 17th century and was a staple of blind bandura players known as Kobzari. “It’s about how the lie comes across as the truth and the importance of being able to make a difference, and the song has remained relevant since it was first sung,” says Kytasty. “Another traditional song is about crowdfunding a war – it’s about throwing coins together to buy our biggest guy a horse and saddle because the enemy is coming and they want to chop down our grove and take our children into captivity.”
For Kytasty as for Hütz, music can both show the world what is happening in Ukraine and bring help and comfort. “We’ve always been about a community,” says Hütz. “We share a cooperative mentality, and right now we’re going on all cylinders and we won’t sleep until we win.”