little ukraine

The Underground Rock History of the Ukrainian National Home

New Order’s big night, Gogol Bordello’s wild sets, and performance art with Soviet phones.

Photo: Eugene Merinov
Photo: Eugene Merinov
Photo: Eugene Merinov


New Order Played the Ukrainian National Home

In 1981, just over a year after front man Ian ­Curtis’s death, the surviving members of Joy Division, now known as New Order, played a concert at the Ukrainian National Home on Second Avenue. Stephen ­Morris, the drummer for both bands, remembers the show.

Photo: Stuart Argabright / Fact A

We were transitioning from “What are we? We’re not Joy Division” to “Well, this is what New Order are.” We got rid of one cheesy drum machine and got another cheesy drum machine and a sequencer. It was all held together with wires on rickety tables. We were contrary, and this, at the time, manifested itself in our desire to play the unusual venue, not just doing the club circuit and playing places that everybody else would.

We had two very good American friends, Ruth Polsky and Michael Shamberg, who were key players for this tour. I think it was Michael’s idea to film it and to do it at the Ukrainian National Home, which, to someone living in Macclesfield — the idea that there was a Ukrainian National Home in New York made the mind boggle. What was it? Would we have to move Ukrainians out for us to play there? We were staying at the Iroquois on 44th Street, and there was some old, schlocky 3-D horror movie on the telly. There was a Popeyes across the road, and you could get the 3-D glasses with some chicken.

When we turned up at the Ukrainian National Home, we were expecting it to be sort of like St. Basil’s Cathedral with those things on top, and it wasn’t. It was just like anywhere else in New York. But it was obviously not the sort of place where you would put a band on.

I can remember the plaque for Taras Shevchenko in the back. And I’ll admit it: I’d never heard of him. When I discovered Shevchenko was a poet, it made me interested. There’s a great tradition of Ukrainian literature. Guy who wrote The Master and Margarita, which is a great book, is from Kyiv. And the more contemporary Andrey Kurkov, who did Death and the Penguin. And because of that, I got kind of into Ukrainian literature. There’s a sort of humor in it, which is bleak — it’s very Mancunian.

What do I remember about the audience? There definitely was one. If I’m honest, I didn’t pay that much attention because it was, Is any of this going to work? Are the cameras going to work? Have they actually recorded the sound? I think I played with my eyes closed. I was very self-conscious. It was one of those nightmare situations where you’re just hoping nothing goes wrong. Because we were nervous, we took measures, let’s say, which usually involved large quantities of alcohol.

There’s a review that describes the crowd as “bohemians with their long coats, scarfs, and faces.” That was our typical audience. And “Yeah, they used to be Joy Division, but what’s the shit they’re playing now?” Which we got a lot of. We weren’t very confident about what we were doing. And we were all sort of worried about what was going to break down next.


Gypsy Punk Arrived in the East Village

Eugene Hütz founded the band Gogol Bordello in 1998. Through wild sets at a variety of venues on the Lower East Side, it defined a new universe of Ukrainian music.

From left: Yaryna Turianska, Eugene Hütz, and Sergey Ryabtsev rehearse before a performance in 2000. Photo: Jason Eksuzian / Yara Arts Group

I started coming to Ukrainian places in the East Village before I even moved here. I was drawn to it, the density of the Ukrainian culture. In Kyiv, where I grew up, the Soviets drilled it into people’s heads that we had to eradicate Ukrainian culture. You’d hit pockets of Ukrainian culture in Kyiv, but it was pretty diluted.

The Soviet Union was a miserable place. Cement block–y. Not a whole hell of a lot of variety in color. After Chernobyl melted down, I went to stay all over Ukraine with family. We are a Romany-mixed family, and I was kind of like the Gypsy Huckleberry Finn. Especially in western Ukraine, in the Carpathian region, everyone was wearing colors, and the music and dancing and language was hard-core. I was like, Yo, I’m living in a magical country.

Then we had to leave because the Soviets were after my father. I crash-landed in Vermont and changed my name from Nikolayev to Hütz, my mother’s maiden name, to cut my ties with anything Russian. In Vermont,
I started some hardcore bands. By the mid-’90s, I was coming down to the East Village. The vibe was a dense Ukrainian mix, like the original Ukrainian magic mix.

I always carried my guitar, and I walked into the bar Lys Mykyta, “Sly Fox,” in the Ukrainian National Home and said, “I want to play a small set of Ukrainian songs.” The dude was like, “When do you want to begin?” I was like, “Right now.” It was five o’clock. So I did it. And after that, I walked around the corner into Blue & Gold and did the same thing. I just wanted to play Ukrainian songs in Ukrainian bars in New York. I still loved hardcore, Bad Brains and Agnostic Front, but I moved into this head space where maybe I’m ready to tell my story.

I wanted to combine experience-driven immigrant tales with the duende of Gypsy music. I needed to hear those old scales and melodies. So I switched to acoustic guitar and started re-creating them myself. I soaked myself in the culture — Ukrainian records, art galleries, meeting vital people like Virlana Tkacz of Yara Arts, kind of a Ukrainian Patti Smith — and that’s when Gogol Bordello came together.

We played in the Ukrainian National Home, the Ukrainian Sports Club. We even played at the Ukrainian Consulate. I don’t know how they tolerated me! Every show was a spectacle and a happening. It was Gypsy punk rock meets klezmer, with the occasional appearance of a Brazilian drum line. We played a lot of art galleries because we were quickly banned from just about every club, even CBGB. It was just too many people, too many things flying around, too much debauchery.

My uncle is a well-known painter in Ukraine, so I know the “less is more” thing, but I was also kind of just like, A lot of times, more is more. So let’s not get too pretentious. It’s music. I call it joycore. It’s supposed to be flamboyant and rambunctious and overwhelming.


Musicians Learned How to Negotiate in Ukrainian

Maria Sonevytsky, an ethnomusicologist, joins Susan Hwang, her bandmate from the Debutante Hour and Main Squeeze Orchestra, to discuss their career playing gigs in the Ukrainian Village.

Maria Sonevytsky: My connection to the Ukrainian National Home goes back to my early childhood. I grew up in the Ukrainian diaspora outside New York City. We would come in every weekend for Plast. And sometimes that would end up with a meal at the Ukrainian National Home. My grandmother actually lived just above it. I moved to New York in 2001, and I booked Debutante Hour’s first show at the Ukrainian National Home in 2007. We were an accordion duo that became a trio, and we were always looking for venues that were cheap. For me, it represented a hybrid place because I had the childhood connection to the Ukrainian diaspora, which was formal and familial and part of a culture that I thought of as not very cool. At the same time, I knew that New Order had played at the Ukrainian National Home back in 1981, so it felt exciting to reclaim a space like that and fill it with people who might not otherwise have gone to that venue.

Susan Hwang: I remember when you were making arrangements, you’d always speak in Ukrainian to one of the ladies there. And then sometimes I would go and drop off the deposit and she would recognize me from having been with you. And that’s how it was in the whole community. People started to recognize me as the Asian woman who was always singing with Maria.

M.S.: I don’t remember what the booking terms were. I do remember trying to ingratiate myself with the people there and promising I would bring a crowd that would buy a lot of food and booze. I could speak Ukrainian to them, but still it took persistence to book the place. It wasn’t obvious. You didn’t send an email. You had to go and find the guy who would give you the number to call, and the guy who answered the phone spoke only Ukrainian. It wasn’t easy, but it worked enough times that they started letting me book more stuff there. And then we could sort of do whatever we wanted. It was a DIY space, no infrastructure, no sound people, no stage, really. It was at the moment when there were some really exciting things happening around the Ukrainian scene. I mean, the bigger Ukrainian scene. Eugene Hütz was DJ-ing at Mehanata Bulgarian Bar every Thursday night. Gogol Bordello was the biggest band in that scene.

S.H.: It’s funny that you didn’t think Ukrainian culture was cool. You introduced me to all of that, and I thought, Why does Maria think being Ukrainian is so uncool? I’m Korean. I don’t think that’s cool. But then you’d take me to those nights and we would see Eugene, and we would try to talk to him and finagle some kind of a show with Main Squeeze Orchestra and him.

M.S.: And we succeeded! We did the Irving Plaza show, Halloween 2004. Main Squeeze Orchestra was 18 women with accordions, and we opened for Gogol Bordello. The after-party was at Sly Fox — a bar my cousins bartended at in the ’80s.

S.H.: And in 2009, we did our telethon at Ukrainian National Home to raise money to do our next record.

M.S.: I had collected 25 Soviet telephones in Ukraine. The phones didn’t connect to anything. They were just art objects. But we brought them to Ukrainian National Home and set them up, and that whole event was just random and hilarious and weird with a really crazy lineup — singers, comedians, magicians, musicians. I had an opportunistic relationship to that venue. And now other people have that relationship.

S.H.: And it still looks exactly the same! Recently, I booked a performance series there. The back room where the shows are still looks like a rec room or something. And the restaurant area looks like — I dunno, someone described it as a dentist’s office.

The Underground Rock History of the Ukrainian National Home