Sergey Ryabtsev is a classically-trained Russian folk fiddler who just happens to play fiddle in the Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. Along this journey, he’s recorded nine albums with them, including their most recent, Pura Vida Conspiracy.
He’s participated in multiple TV appearances on shows such as the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the Late Show with David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel Live. He’s been in seven movies and three band documentaries including cameos in Madonna’s directorial debut film, Filth and Wisdom, and the Elijah Wood hit, Everything Is Illuminated. He also shared with Gogol Bordello singer Eugene Hütz a stage appearance with the aforementioned Madonna at the 2007 London Wembley Stadium Live Earth concert that was broadcast globally to millions. He’s even had the chance to perform in a Coke commercial.
But with all this success, Sergey remains a profoundly humble and honest person—a set of qualities that are hard to come by in today’s world of superficial, selfie celebrity. It was a pleasure to sit down with him and discuss his life and times as well as just how he found himself the fiddle player in one of the zaniest, unconventional punk rock bands of all time.
You were born and raised in Russia. How did you first start playing the fiddle? What was it about that instrument that maintained an interest for you?
I wouldn’t have known about the violin if it wasn’t for my father. He worked as a metal caster in a factory. In our house, in a small wooden case, he had his violin. It was my father’s pride and joy. He would often take it out and show it to me, then play it. I too would put it against my shoulder and attempt to squeeze some kind of sound out of it. But I was unsuccessful—the violin was almost as big as I was. My father promised me that someday it would be mine. He kept his promise. When I started attending music school I very much wanted to be like my father. And I felt that soon I would be able to play like him. But this “soon” never seemed to come. When I would show my father what I had learned, my father, tragically lowering his head, would tell me: “My son, you don’t have soul when you play.” To find my soul, when my father wasn’t around, I would get his favorite sheet music...this was Czardas by Vittorio Monti, and I would attempt to play it. And following every such attempt I would have to reconcile myself with the fact that I just did not have soul…which did not bother me much. Because there was always soccer with my friends in the courtyard. Still, Monti’s Czardas trailed me, only finally catching up with me when I was in my thirties and living in America. I think I’ve played that piece here no fewer than a thousand times. I couldn’t have imagined how popular this piece of music was here in America. That old violin no longer exists. Neither does my father. But I am very grateful to him for that first violin, and for Monti’s Czardas, and for introducing me to music.
You moved to New York in 1994, and by 2000 you were a member of Gogol Bordello. How did you become involved with the band and its legendary singer/songwriter Eugene Hütz?
Eugene came with some friends to the nightclub where I was working. He wanted to see our Gypsy show—about which there had been a lot of buzz—and to hear our playing. After the show he approached me and asked me if I’d like to play a concert with him and his band the following day. When I asked what music we would be playing, his answer was, “It doesn’t matter.” He gave me a CD to listen to, and the following night I was up there with them on the stage. Of course I did not know then how this would turn out for me. I just felt Eugene’s powerful magnetism. Also, my experience of living in America taught me to open myself to all proposals regarding playing music, no matter how unusual or risky—by then I’d had a lot of experience working as a musician in America. But I never imagined that this one chance meeting would change my entire life.
You are a classically-trained violinist. At any point along that path did you ever envision yourself playing folk rock fiddle for a world famous Gypsy/Romany punk band?
Musical education in Russia was classical and very strict. My music professor would have thrown me out of the conservatory if he knew that I was playing in a restaurant, for example. And my father would have thrown me out of the house if he knew I was listening to rock music. But taboos encourage curiosity. My curiosity didn’t really manifest itself in day-to-day life. But on a subconscious level I’ve always had the urge to do something unusual. It was always difficult for me to sit in one place. For example, after six months of playing in a symphony orchestra, I ran away from it without any qualms. I was suffocating there from continually sitting in the same place and playing the same music again and again. I was starting to worry that my whole life would pass by in this even, predictable, quiet, dull way. From early childhood I fantasized—was sure of it in fact—that in some way my life would be amazing. Maybe in this lies the true reason for why I went to America, as well as for why I started playing different kinds of music: I think inside myself I was always ready for change, movement. And here in America I guess maybe I just did what was in my nature; I felt as if I was reborn here. That’s how I came to play Gypsy punk.
Speaking of playing style, you possess a rather unique style of playing where you play the root note of the scale together with the associated octave or the third or sixth note, which results in a bigger, fuller sound. How did you develop this technique?
For me this method isn’t unusual or unique. It comes from my classical training. The use of this technique is dictated by the style in which we (Gogol Bordello) play. But the realization that it’s possible to do this did not come to me right away. It’s just that at some point the singular, linear sound of the violin—ordinary melodic playing—wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t want to use electronic effects to keep the acoustic violin sound. Then at some point everything was solved very simply. As the sound of one violin wasn’t sufficient for what I was doing, I had to make it sound like there were two. Some of my violinist colleagues tried to dissuade me from doing this, saying that playing double notes in a band can be technically dangerous, if not impossible. But in order to widen my sound and timbre I had to do it. That’s how I started, playing octaves, then everything else. This also gave my sound a “Gypsy feel,” so to speak.
Can you discuss the “music is a part of life” lesson you received at age seventeen from your father in your family’s kitchen? That is a thought-provoking story that I’d like you to share with our readers.
At seventeen, everything seems simple: you do what you like, and the “whys” and “what fors” aren’t important. At that time I was just finishing music school. I was playing academic concerts for my professors. My only goal was to get into the conservatory. Once I came home from school and there were a lot of people in our kitchen. These were simple working men whom my father had invited over to drink and talk, so that their wives wouldn’t know. My father asked me to play something for them on my violin. I got very angry at him for this, locked myself in my room and didn’t come out. In a little while my father knocked on my door and entered. He was very hurt and again asked me to play for his friends. And then he said something I’d remember for the rest of my life. He said that if I don’t play for them now they will never have another chance to hear the violin. This word “never,” and the feeling with which he’d said it, forced me to take my violin and go back to the kitchen. He’d said it in a way that I could not refuse him. In the kitchen it was very loud and smoky. And I, after school, was very tired, and didn’t know what to play. I didn’t know what music they needed. My school repertoire was all that I knew. I started playing Bach. I wanted to finish quickly and leave. But when I finished playing there was complete silence. Everyone was looking at me; no one made a sound. I was ready for any reaction, just not this one. Their expressions were very serious and attentive. I stood there for a while, then continued playing. I played Mendelssohn, Wieniawski, and Mozart, in other words everything that I knew. And they listened and listened and their faces became beautiful. This was the first real concert I’d given in my life. And my audience was the kind that one can only hope for. When I’d finished I looked at my father and saw he was crying. This was probably the most important lesson that my father taught me. I understood then that I wanted to become a musician. And I understood why I must do this. For the first time I felt that music was a part of life and did not exist in a closed space within oneself, as it had seemed to me behind the walls of my school. Music doesn’t exist for itself but for people. In it, in music, we become better, we see each other, we know each other, we become closer, we connect with each other through music.
[For much more of this interview, subscribe to Fiddler Magazine, or purchase the Summer 2015 issue
[Michael Lohr is a professional musician and music journalist for several magazines (Acoustic Guitar, Celtic Life, Bluegrass Unlimited, Hittin’ The Note, and others). He is an active voting member of the Blues Foundation, Folk Alliance International, Americana Music Association, Roots Music Association, and the Country Music Association, as well as several European-based music organizations.]