Pulling from the Balkans, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and farther, Balkan Beat Box creates music that blurs any lines between the cultures that influence it, and melts it all together into one global dance community.
Balkan Beat Box began as a studio project between Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat, both born in Israel, who met on a tour bus while playing in the band Firewater.
“After Ori heard some of the records I produced, he asked me to produce his solo record for the Knitting Factory,” Muskat said.
The two worked together on the 2004 album by J.U.F., which was a collaborative effort between them and Balkan punk band Gogol Bordello.
Next up was the first Balkan Beat Box album, which mixed together the ethnic music of their childhood and resulted in world dance grooves that pulled from the sounds they had grown up listening to. Kaplan and Muskat messed with the sounds enough to bring them into the modern world and make them fell alive again.
“Growing up in Israel you really get it all, from Mediterranean to eastern European,” said Muskat. “It was all there since we were kids. Later on in life, we got exposed to so much music, so it was natural to blend it in as well.”
“None of us were interested in making pure, traditional music, since it was only a part of what we liked and grew up on. Combined with the folklore music all of us liked modern music, electronica, punk rock, dub.”
Muskat credits their lives in New York City as the catalyst that pushed them even further to sculpt a new sound for the old music.
“It was a long search and it’s not over yet,” he said.
The band has recorded four albums, plus a collection of remixes, with Tomer Yosef coming onboard as permanent vocalist beginning with their second one.
Their most recent album, 2012’s “Give,” featured further experiments with instrumentation, including old analog synthesizers and children’s toys. It also heightened political content that Muskat says guided the sound that came out of those sessions, although that also worked the other way, and these changes in instrumentation have bled backward, revitalizing old material that they perform live.
“We started feeling like the album was becoming more and more about difficult issues, political, cultural,” Muskat said, “so maybe that led into using more hardcore sounds, electronics.”
“Since we work on songs in the studio, sometimes a good new sound, drum machine or whatever, will inspire us to come up with a beat that will lead into a song.”
The new album has also revitalized the band’s earlier work as they begin to present both on the stage in live shows.
“You can definitely hear the sound of ‘Give’ there now days,” said Muskat. “We rearranged old songs, remixed some of them, mainly to keep it fresh for ourselves.”
The album features one song, “Enemy in Economy,” that is a reaction to an incident that saw Yosef being detained by the TSA. The band expanded their concern from a personal and biographical account into a more wide-reaching one that lamented the experience of ordinary people trapped in the same situation.
“Tomer was suspected to be a terrorist for no reason whatsoever other than his look,” Muskat said. “Mainly the feeling I came out with is, what about people that are not artists, that don’t have a name and can’t get out of something like that in a few hours? They end up being locked away for years sometimes, definitely post 9/11.”
“We wrote a song about it, that was it, but think about these men and women who are profiled every day for the color of their skin, their accent, whatever it is. Maybe they don’t have a way to explain themselves so well, or the money for a good lawyer. That’s where it really gets to be sad.”
That song is not unusual in the band’s concerns and Muskat says politics has formed much of their music from the moment they embarked on the project in 2006. There was no way they could avoid it.
“Living in that part of the globe makes it into your DNA, you don’t think about it, it’s second nature,” he said. “We obviously got more and more aware over time, growing up and all, but Balkan Beat Box started with that tone of lyrics from the first album.”
“We don’t always write about those issues, politics, but ‘Give’ definitely was the pick of that, probably because the world becomes so violent and messed up.”
The political focus of “Give” was propelled by recent global protests, like the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the wide ranging Occupy movement. All these uprisings energized the band and moved them to add their voice to the worldwide chorus and do what they could to create awareness for the issues being addressed in those movements. Muskat sees it as part of their duty as artists.
“On this last album, we were clearer then ever with our opinions, regarding the use of power and violence by governments, calling people to get out and stand for what they think is right and good for them,” he said. “It’s so easy to sit and see life passing by, dictated by people that are motivated by money and power, slowly killing this planet. Don’t get me started.”
During the same period, the three core band members became fathers for the first time. This not only accentuated their political concerns, but highlighted the reasons they were required to address them in their music. Global horrors suddenly became more personal.
“Being fathers, you start to see the world from a different angle,” Muskat said. “What can you do to make this place better for that kid of yours?”
As the band moves forward, Muskat says that their only real plan is no plan at all. Since they have a precedent of embracing no one style, they feel no obligation to stick to any formula. The band will, as always, keep the journey loose, which will allow them to do what they love most musically — explore and mix things up with their own musical alchemy.
“We are over that genres thing,” Muskat said. “We are very much interested in new discoveries, mashing things up till you can’t pinpoint them anymore, and feel very comfortable doing lots of things, till it clicks and feels like BBB to us.”
“What is it? No one really knows. It’s a feeling, a pulse, and I feel like we are super lucky to share it as a group and agree on these moments.”