Last week, the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City presented the world premiere of Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story. The documentary follows the long-running “Gypsy Punk” band as they defiantly return to Ukraine for the first time since the Russian invasion. As part of our World Refugee Day programming, KEXP’s Janice Headley spoke with Ukrainian-born frontman Eugene Hütz about the film and the power of music to fight back.
It’s been over a year since Russian troops invaded Ukraine, igniting a war that has reduced cities to rubble and killed tens of thousands of people. While the conflict itself hasn’t wavered, media coverage has… which is something Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello is using his music to combat.
Eugene’s music-driven mission is the focus of the documentary Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last week. The film chronicles Eugene’s immigration from Ukraine to the U.S. as a teenager, to forming Gogol Bordello in 1999 in New York City, through last year’s defiant return to Ukraine for the first time since the Russian invasion. Eugene explains that Gogol Bordello traveled to his home country to showcase a brighter side of Ukraine.
The reason why we wanted to go there is, because Western press was getting really, really tired of this topic. And, being alarmed by the fact that support somehow might be waning, we — along with many, many other friends — just put another muscle into it. Organize a visit that's going to bring yet another angle to it. Turn the story another way: that Ukraine is not some off-the-charts territory where there is just crazy warfare going on, but that the people still have within them what it takes to get together, enjoy things such as music, something that brings them together, something that recharges their morale and psyche.
Since the invasion, Gogol Bordello has used their platform as musicians to draw focus to the cause. They’ve organized several benefit concerts, with special guests like Patti Smith, Primus, Ween, and too many others to list. They’ve released singles, donating all proceeds to Ukrainian aid organizations. And now, with Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story, they hope to show the world a new perspective on Ukraine.
The film kind of demonstrates some quintessential traits of Ukrainian people, me and my family just being one of them. If you look at the history of diaspora and history of immigration, you will see that people were leaving Ukraine for hundreds of years already because of the same reasons, trying to escape oppression from Moscow chiefly.
So, Ukrainian people have what it takes as far as perseverance and muscle goes. Like a beehive. They're just going to be in there, making their honey. That's like one nation. But if you kick the beehive, you will see how ferocious it will be. And that's what you're seeing right now. It's a Ukrainian beehive worldwide. It's very upset and very determined. And believe me, they do have what it takes to take that beehive back.
In an especially powerful scene in the documentary, Gogol Bordello performs a secret concert from an undisclosed location, joined by members of Ukraine's National Border Guard Service Orchestra.
The intent behind the performance was to uplift the spirits of the war-trodden soldiers, but the concert proved just as therapeutic for Eugene. He was moved to witness the fighting spirit and determination of the front-line defenders firsthand.
We were actually really uplifted by the fact that like afterwards, hanging out with the soldiers and spending some time, eye-to-eye. [You could see] the spirit wasn't waning, by any means. And that's what we needed to see, so we could do our cultural front job better, too.
The film then shows Eugene traveling to the Roma Refugee Center where he performs a solo acoustic set for the residents out in the yard.
After his family left Ukraine, Eugene himself spent time in refugee camps in Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Italy. What got a teenaged Eugene through it at the time was exactly what he was able to give back as an adult: music. Each time he moved, he brought a guitar and a radio.
Oh, listen, I'm a self-sufficient deejay operation. I very quickly equipped myself with a boombox, that I earned from money busking. I was constantly tuning in to radio stations that were very good. Actually, in Europe, they were playing the most sizzling music of the day. The Fall and Sonic Youth. Suicidal Tendencies. Fugazi. Just music that was really, really on at the time. I'd just take the boom box to an intersection with me, and wash cars in Italy, and blast the music. And that was the vibe.
Forty years later, Joe Lally of Fugazi is supporting Eugene in his efforts to raise support and awareness of the war in Ukraine. Gogol Bordello’s latest single – titled “United Strike Back” – features Joe, Jello Biafra, Tre Cool of Green Day, Monte Pittman of Ministry, Sasha (Kazka), the group Puzzled Panther, and Roger Miret of Agnostic Front.
A lot of people chipped in really, really great performances. People who are big inspirations to me, like Roger Miret of Agnostic Front, another very powerful immigrant punk voice. I always was a fan of Agnostic Front, but it was not until I met Roger in person, like years later, that he told me, Yeah, I'm actually a political refugee from Cuba. I was like, Wow. It makes even more sense that it spoke to me straight off the bat and cut through all the chase, you know?
All proceeds from sales of the single are being donated to KindDeeds, an organization that helps wounded Ukrainian defenders regain mobility with prosthetics.
And with the documentary Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story, Eugene demonstrates the power of music to heal, inspire, and unite.
I know, it's such a cliche that music, you know, heals your soul and like all these things, but it's so true. Every day, I witness it. Every day, you go places, some strange hole-in-the-wall in the most lost part of the world, and people have music on. They tap their foot, and it gets them through the day. It still charges them up.
And live music, in particular. At the beginning of the night, you see people just coming in. Some of them are kind of down-and-out, maybe going through some personal tragedy or whatever. And as soon as the music cuts in, the eyes start to sparkle. And then, by the end of the night, you're really somewhere else. Everything just seems to be elevated. And it's just undeniable.
Stay tuned for future screenings and on-demand streaming of Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story. Details to be announced here.
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