You might not be conscious of the Hungarian Gypsy scale, but you've definitely heard it before: B-movie horror scores, snake charms, childhood rhymes about naked ladies in France—all these things use the scale's seven notes. Try playing them on a piano (C, D, E-flat, F-sharp, G, A-flat, B)—it's like an instant trigger of associations. The tones are exotic, but in a specific way—like Transylvania, cabaret bar crawls, or Eastern Bloc violins.
The Gypsy scale's specific musical identity also happens to link a loose-knit set of bands, many of whom are referred to as "Gypsy punk." The term, which was coined by Gogol Bordello's Eugene Hütz, was originally just a descriptor for his own band; however, the title has taken on a life of its own. It now encompasses a motley crew of theatrical, old-world-inspired bands. Hütz, a master of hyperbole, once referred to the style as a "raging, decadent renaissance bomb."
It's clear that Hütz has a way with words, but his thick Eastern Euro accent isn't an affectation. He immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine when he was 14, after (seriously) surviving the Chernobyl accident. Hütz discovered punk rock and Gypsy music as a kid living in Kiev, buying records with money made selling bootlegged copies of Hustler for five bucks a pop.
Years later, when Hütz finally made his way to New York City, he transformed his innate theatrical sense into a washed-out growl—a madman Charlie Chaplin/Darby Crash character he has been perfecting since 1999, when Gogol Bordello formed. That same year, the band released their debut album, Voi-La Intruder, immediately scoring a UK hit with "Start Wearing Purple." However, it wasn't until 2005's Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike that Gogol Bordello's U.S. fame reached critical mass. By that point, stories of Hütz's glass-smashing stage antics were legendary; the band's mess of violins, fire buckets, and guitars were already propped up by six years of gigging experience. In the two years since, it's been a wild ride for the band, and, as is evident on their latest album, Super Taranta!, their Oi! Gypsy sway has grown into full-on, stadium-sized provocation.
Denver-based DeVotchKa represent another side of the Gypsy-punk coin. Their four-person "Eastern Bloc indie rock" approach replaces Gogol's anthemic bent with a smoky cabaret croon. Bandleader Nick Urata is classically brooding, his well-coiffed voice coated in the same olive oil as Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra. Jeanie Schroder is Urata's onstage counterpoint, alternating between a sousaphone and upright bass, her vaudevillian movements playing up the band's darkness without delving into camp.
Formed around the same time as Gogol Bordello (in 1997), DeVotchKa maintained a cult following for several years before contributing to the soundtrack for Little Miss Sunshine. Following that, they became "the best little Grammy-nominated band you've never heard of," a too-cute term of endearment considering their unchaste roots touring with burlesque star Dita von Teese.
DeVotchKa's most recent release, the Curse Your Little Heart EP, deconstructs their brand of Gypsy punk. Covering Siouxsie and the Banshees, Frank Sinatra, and Spanish folk staple "El Zopilote Mojado," the EP's wild sweep reveals the influences behind 2004's How It Ends. Not that it feels that way—one of DeVotchKa's greatest strengths is bending all their impulses into one singular approach.
Gypsy punk is a motley movement, if it is one at all. Other bands linked to the loose genre, like Balkan Beat Box and Golem, take an approach similar to Gogol Bordello and DeVotchKa's—namely, the pursuit of their own aesthetic. As a result, the only thing many of these bands have in common is odd instrumentation and adapted Gypsy scales (and, in the case of Gogol Bordello and DeVotchKa, simultaneous Bumbershoot time slots). Like punk's first wave, all ideas fit as long as they aren't too much like everything else. And as for any Gypsy authenticity—it doesn't exist. Even Gogol Bordello, with their straight outta Chernobyl pedigree, make music most ethnic Gypsies would consider blasphemy. If that makes for a rootless scene, then consider it high irony. It wouldn't be punk any other way.