Fell in love with a Gypsy

August 13th, 2009 by Jason Jenkins

Gogol Bordello

The gypsies are coming!

Nothing new actually. Gypsy bands have been touring Japan for years, but this summer may mark a watershed moment since two of the most talked-about acts at Japan’s major music festivals were Roma music progenitors: Sweden’s Räfven at Fujirock and New York’s Gogol Bordello at Summer Sonic.

Both are big bands (8 or 9 people onstage) with a big sound. And now, possibly a big impact. Creating a new Fujirock record, Räfven performed eight times at the festival, playing everywhere from the massive Red Marquee stage to the Mokudoutei, a small wooden platform set up along a boardwalk through the forest. Word spread over the weekend (their CD was one of the fest’s highest-selling), and by their final shows, crowds had grown massive . . . and rowdy. Ever seen 200 Japanese kids mosh to accordions and violins? It’s magnificent.

Räfven are unknowns on the global stage, but Gogol Bordello have recently taken the world by storm (even Madonna wants a piece of Eugene Hütz, the band’s prolific frontman). Hütz‘s self-proclaimed “Immigrant Punk” style has made Gogol Bordello the darling of the global festival circuit with its unclassifiable mix of musical signifiers (band members hail from Russia, Ethiopia, Israel, Scotland, Ecuador, America and elsewhere). Imagine if the Clash gigged at a Jewish-Ukrainian mafia wedding in late 70’s Detroit and you’ll get a rough idea. They were THE band of Fujirock 2008, so I wasn’t surprised to see them back in Japan last weekend at Summer Sonic, Japan’s other big fest. Performing at the distant Beach stage at the same time as Sonic Youth, the Flaming Lips and Beyoncé, Gogol was packed, and sand was flying. Mark my words: Räfven and Gogol Bordello will be back. And when they do, buy a ticket.

All of this attention should be good news for Plankton, the Japanese label/promoter responsible for most of Japan’s interest in Roma music. Two authentic Romanian Gypsy bands — the brass-heavy Fanfare Ciocarlia and the string-based Taraf de Haïdouks — have Plankton to thank for their fanbase here. They’ll be bringing over Angelo Debarre and Ludovic Beier this September — not exactly a barnburner like those described above, but the more palatable “gypsy swing” style of the most famous gypsy musician of all: Django Reinhardt.

Image courtesy of Makiko Endo

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