Playing folk music in an urban setting in the 21st century is a tricky business. Christian Kuffner, the ringleader of New Orleans' Zydepunks, has seen it go bad. "We saw a zydeco band in Massachusetts," he remembers. "They said, 'Aieee.' You can't just say 'Aiee.' It has to be right."
Kuffner concedes that the Zydepunks have been moved to utter that Cajun holler at appropriate times. The band has been playing its hybrid blend of accordion and fiddle-driven folk-punk since 2004. Its shows are legendary sweatfests, stirring the crowd into a frenzy with elements of Cajun, klezmer, Breton, Irish and other ethnic styles that lend themselves to the band's gypsy-style instrumentation while Kuffner sings and shouts in French, German, English, Spanish and Portuguese. Barrooms turn humid with the body heat of whirling dancers as the band transforms Western European folk traditions into punk rock frenzy.
Ukrainian singer Eugene Hutz coined the phrase "gypsy punk" several years ago to describe the vision behind his act Gogol Bordello, a band with a frenetic live show that's best described as Iggy Pop meets Baba Yaga. The phrase is now an umbrella term used to describe a growing body of acts that use a combination of rock and folk instrumentation, and sometimes circus or carnivalesque stage shows, to create a sound that's equal parts rock and Roma. CBGB enters the Black Forest.
"We always run into the false assumption that Flogging Molly and Gogol Bordello are the bands that influenced us. They're not. They're really bands who came out at the same time," Kuffner says. He is a hybrid himself, the offspring of a German father and an Ecuadorian mother. He grew up in a German-speaking community in Virginia, exposed to multiple languages and styles of folk music.
"A lot of the old German stuff I really liked from the church was the really old stuff that goes almost to the Renaissance and the Middle Ages," he says. "Back then, German folk music was a lot closer to Irish and French folk music; it has a lot of the same weird keys. It's not all like 'ach du lieber Augustine' -- the really terrible, cheesy oompah stuff." Growing up, he was also exposed to South American music via his mother, and bluegrass native to the Virginia countryside where he lived -- making the musical pastiche that is the Zydepunks' craft a natural impulse for him.
"It's interesting to call it a trend," he said, pointing out that artists like Tom Waits and Shane McGowan, who've been mining ethnic sounds to create postmodern rock for decades, are as likely to influence 21st century folk-punk bands as the original, indigenous sounds. "It comes from a lot of different roots. Obviously a big one is the [Berlin] Wall coming down. For example, the band the Ukrainians came out, which is really the first band that I heard that mixed punk and Eastern European stuff. They started in the late '80s and the early '90s after the Wall came down. They used to do Smiths covers in Ukrainian and stuff."
Kuffner points out that the multiethnic combination of complementary sounds present in the Zydepunks' music has actually been done mostly by the natural progression of history.
"Unless you know your folk music, it's hard to tell [the difference]," he says. "Some French-Canadian traditional music you can't tell from Irish, because they mixed with Irish and Scots immigrants in eastern Canada. I'll play something French and people will say it sounds Russian, but it's not. If I played you three different things from Basque country or Galicia or southern France, especially if it's instrumental, you couldn't tell." The distinctive sounds of accordion and fiddle -- both portable instruments -- figure heavily in the indigenous music of many cultures, which isn't an accident; they also make cutting and pasting, like the Zydepunks do, much easier work. The band also adds its own American stamp to the blend of global influences. In fact, Kuffner points out that what they're doing -- translating another country's rural music through their own lens -- is, in essence, what English acts in the '60s did with American blues to update rock 'n' roll. And as the band members progress, they're fine-tuning their style even more carefully.
"When we started, we mixed all these different folk music styles," he says. "Like we would do an Irish song and then a Cajun song and a French song, so it was kind of haphazard. But now that we've molded this sound, it's been a real natural progression. There's one song on the next CD after this that has influences from Iron Maiden, French folk music and ska, but it sounds right. It's just little pieces that kind of come together."
On Saturday, the Zydepunks celebrate the release of their latest CD, Exile Waltz (Nine Mile Records), after which they hit the road again with dates on the East Coast and in Europe.
- The Zydepunks release Exile Waltz this week and embark on a fall tour.