The Jewish NRBQ
The word Balkan evokes Balkanization—the division of an organized entity into several, small units that generally act unfriendly towards each other. That’s one reason why the name Balkan Beat Box is such a misnomer for a band whose music is made up of diverse global influences that are blended together in happy harmony. It would be different if the band came from the Balkan Peninsula, but that’s not really the case. Balkan Beat Box ‘s two founding members, Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat, were born and raised in Israel, and made their musical bones in New York City. They may have ethnic roots in the Balkan Peninsula, but so what? There is nothing distinctively Balkan about the band’s music. If anything, the primary sound could be best described as Middle Eastern.
But even that is somewhat of a misleading. As this music incorporates a host of international flavors. While its latest disc features styles found in Kaplan and Muskat’s Jewish homeland and their Arabic neighbors, the music incorporates Mexican Mariachi and American country blues, Eastern European Gypsy and Jamaican reggae, and too many other genres to name. The sound is truly international.
And then there’s the term beat box, a reference to hip-hop vocals made by using the mouth to reproduce drum and percussion beats. While it’s difficult to distinguish every thud and echo on the record, there doesn’t appear to be any human beat box present. A jumble of exotic instruments can be heard being blown, strummed and pounded upon, often at the same time—not to mention a laughing baby, horses neighing, video game soundtracks, a record played backwards, gurgling water, and more—all layered over danceable multi-rhythmic patterns. The group would be better named by some expression like World Dance Music Ensemble or Mish Mash Bouncy Global Rhythms Incorporated. Then again, these names are not an improvement. I guess a band’s name doesn’t have to be descriptive.
Balkan Beat Box is a collective. The number of people in the band on any particular song is hard to determine, a situation made more difficult by the fact that they utilize samples and guest vocalists on the new disc. Reports of its concerts reveal that Balkan Beat Box can take the stage with anywhere from a small handful to more than a dozen musicians. The three artists most responsible are co-founders Kaplan and Muskat, who play clarinet and a drums respectively. They also produce all sorts of creative mishigas and sound effects on Nu Med. The third core member who has been a more recent addition to the mix, Israeli rapper and vocalist Tomer Yosef, lends his own special dub and dancehall spins to the overall sound.
This new album lists 14 separate tracks, but they all flow together to create one big party soundtrack. The music serves as revelry, a celebration of the world’s differences as an occasion to whoop it up—like when the circus comes to town. As this emerges at a time where being different from someone else can be the cause of conflict, the group deserves applause for its intentions. Happily, the band also merits appreciation for being so creative and fun. They are the world music equivalent of NRBQ, and like its American counterpart, Balkan Beat Box enjoys a reputation as a great live band.
Popular Jewish websites for young adults, like Jewschool.com and Jewlicious.com, regularly herald the group’s concerts as the happening places to be. These shows are where progressive, religious Hebrews let it all hang out. The new disc serves as an entry point for Gentiles who may be intimidated by big crowds of Jews to join in the excitement. Balkan Beat Box makes it clear that people of all faiths and nationalities are welcome.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.