Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Feature - Balkan Beat Box

Published in The Big Issue, Feb 20-Mar 5 2015.

Feeling The Beat
By mixing Eastern European music with Arabic, Mediterranean, Funk, Reggae and Dub, Balkan Beat Box are redefining world music.

The hip, coffee shop-lined streets of New York’s Brooklyn may seem, at first glance, a literal world away from the likes of Tel Aviv and parts of Eastern Europe, but for “godfathers of global bass” Balkan Beat Box, the similarities are more evident than you’d think.

Formed in 2003 by Israeli-born musicians Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat, Balkan Beat Box came together on the underground Brooklyn music scene, a hotbed of musical mashups and genre-hopping, the perfect breeding ground for the group’s heady mixture of traditional Israeli and Eastern European music and the more modern electronica and funk prevalent in the US at the time.

“I was in a [New York] band called Firewater, and Tamir was the drummer, so we kinda met on the tour bus,” Kaplan explains on the origins of BBB, both players having moved to the States in the early ‘90s. “[So] we started making plans… we did a project together which was basically Tamir and myself versus Eugene (Hutz) and Oren (Kaplan, no relation) from Gogol Bordello (of whom Ori was a member at the time) called JUF.”

“That was kind of a test of Tamir and my production together, melody versus beat,” he goes on. “So we continued, added more Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, we continued to work with different guests, and so we broke off to do our own thing. It was amazing… the first album (self-titled, 2005) was a DJ album, but then we built a band around it and kicked it off.”

The band became, as Kaplan describes, a “creative workshop”, the trio (having added frontman Tomer Yosef in late 2006) striving to evolve and explore with each passing album. “The palette is so wide, that we have to evolve, we cannot get stuck,” reasons Kaplan. “Every album we make, we give ourselves a special limitation. So like, for the third album, we’re gonna go to Belgrade and record all our melodies with a Roma brass band. For the fourth album, it’s the three of us in a room with a bunch of analogue and electronic toys.”

“But we always recognise what our sound is, and how it’s evolving,” he adds, “so every album we make, we try to push the envelope more, for ourselves.”

The mixture of musical styles BBB blend is hardly a common one. Drawing on their own traditional music, as well as Arabic, Mediterranean and Eastern European in addition to funk, reggae and dub, they’ve come to create something of their very own – important in New York, as Kaplan says.

“In New York, the idea is you find something that you’re really good at, and be the best at it. So you look at yourself, you look inward, you look back to your roots,” he concurs.

“There was a lot of different music at home,” he goes on, referencing said roots, “but when you’re young, you’re not really conscious, it hits the back of your ear. [There was] Turkish, Arabic, Greek music, there was a lot of mix, and we grew up in Israel, it’s a melting pot, lots of people from different cultures.

“So when we got to New York, I was playing be-bop, Tamir was in an R&B/funk band, we were trying to mix in with the New York mix. After learning to do that really well, we kinda turned into ourselves, you know? What’s your output, what’s your statement, what are you best at? It was very easy for us to access our musical past, which I think explains the music of the band.”

After the initial success of Balkan Beat Box in 2005, Kaplan, Muskat and Yosef, along with a string of studio and touring musicians, honed the myriad musical ideas they’d pieced together, returning to the studio subsequently releasing Nu Med (2007), Nu Med Remixes (2008), Blue Eyed Black Boy (2010) and most recently, Give, in 2012. And there’s still, according to Kaplan, so much more sonic terrain to cover.

“At the moment we’re working on a new album, where we jammed with our favourite musicians for three days,” he explains. “With no plan. Just picking different ideas from, say, one hour of playing… [and] editing it to four bars, or finding the perfect eight bars.

“And so we’ve found these amazing things that would never happen with programming… so we’ve taken these accidental eight bars, and then create a beat from that. It took a long time, we’ve created the world’s largest sampling library. And then we start writing on top of these eight bars.”

This unusual method – farming through hours of music for a single bar or two which then forms the basis of a beat which then becomes an album track – is commensurate with what the band’s MO has been all along. Do it differently, do it deliberately, do it better than anyone else. And have fun doing it. From growing up in Israel to where they are now, they journey has been long, but is hardly over.

Samuel J. Fell

Balkan Beat Box play WOMADelaide over the March long weekend.

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