Santiago was the first to feel the assault of Gogol Bordello’s South American tour when the band struck on Saturday, November 7. Not even Industria Cultural’s enormous caverns and high ceilings could dwarf these gypsy-punk giants and their sound--an Eastern-European collision of hard rock, dub and folk.
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Opening the show was La Mano Ajena, Santiago’s own incredibly popular gypsy band. The bulk of the Santiago crowd arrived early, and it was clear from the response that this band is worth devoting a Saturday night to, with or without a colossal international act to follow. La Mano Ajena mixes cumbia and latin sounds with an African vibe and intriguing stage theatre. Actors as well as musicians, this band has presence.
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Lead vocalist Maria Fernanda has a huge voice, rattling off lyrics like soliloquies before leaping over to join her violinist, clarinet player and guitarists in a slick choreographed dance. The only disappointment with the set was its length; La Mano Ajena took off after only six songs, leaving the audience suspended midair. But Gogol Bordello were only too happy to pick up on this energy.
If someone reached down from the sky to pluck the most extroverted and oddball musicians from the earth’s nether-regions and threw them all onstage in one place, the result would look something like Gogol Bordello. Amongst its nine members are a huge Ethiopian bassist, a sailor-violinist, an accordionist that resembles Vladimir Putin, an Ecuadorian percussionist decked out in a luchador mask, and, of course, the inimitable Eugene Hütz, Ukraine-born descendant of Roma ancestry who has appeared in films like Everything is Illuminated and Madonna’s Filth and Wisdom.
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But for their motley appearance, the sound is unbelievably cohesive — and explosive. From the first note, Gogol Bordello produced a circus of fury that never let up. Self-ordained “gypsy punks”, the band manage to channel everything between gypsy and punk, including polka, dub and metal riffs. By the third song, “Start Wearing Purple,” it was dangerous to stand still and there was little choice but to leap up and down maniacally, and soon involuntarily, with the rest of the Santiago crowd.
Pedro Erazo, percussionist and MC from Ecuador, dominated much of Gogol’s set-- his furious rapping in Spanish inciting a raucous response. Too fast to really catch the words (and sometimes indiscernible in the band’s chaos), he nonetheless won adulation to rival frontman Hütz. Gogol Bordello’s insane combination of languages, styles and onstage theatrics is like several blows to the head from different directions. There is no other live show like this.
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Eugene Hütz himself is a formidable figure. Strutting out alone for the start of a second set, mustachioed, shirtless, 6’1”, clutching a bashed-and-battered acoustic guitar (which looks like it trekked with him out of the Ukraine, across Europe and the Atlantic ocean, and only just survived), Hütz can make a crowd seethe and belt lyrics without a single word himself. The words to this one were pretty easy, consisting only of “Alcohol!” over and over, yet the mesmerizing, sleepy-but-edgy slap/strike of the guitar, as Hütz lurched his lanky frame around the stage, turned this into an anthem. The full band joined him to finish the set in style, the whole crew falling over each other to bow and thank first the left-stage, then the right-stage audience. In a final gesture, Hütz mimed ripping open his chest, then pulling out and throwing his heart to the crowd, something half the audience would surely have helped him with had they managed to get past security.
“We’ll be back, very soon,” he drawled. It won’t be soon enough.