'One Route for the Whole World to Go On': An Interview With Balkan Beat Box
As Balkan Beat Box releases their third album, their master of melodies Ori Kaplan talks about writing, recording and where he stands on the 'Balkan Beats' scene.
Musicians have been fusing different styles and genres together for years. We’re now well used to hybrids like jazz-funk and rap-metal, but that doesn’t mean that novel musical concoctions aren’t still being brewed up. New York band Balkan Beat Box are one group who continue to push the limits of genre. They’re Israeli immigrants, but that doesn’t mean that their sound is confined by the klezmer. Balkan Beat Box are more eclectic than most, incorporating jazz, gypsy music and African sounds into a framework that is informed in equal parts by punk and hip-hop. Since their self-titled debut album came out in 2005 they have been developing their global sound and winning over audiences all over the world. I caught up with saxophonist Ori Kaplan on the phone on their current European tour behind their latest album Blue Eyed Black Boy.
Balkan Beat Box have a reputation for throwing a pretty wild party at their shows, and their London show certainly lived up to this. Drummer and producer Tamir Muskat takes both his roles on stage simultaneously, deftly switching between drum kit and laptop while Ori and the rest of the musicians supply the melodic hooks and MC Tomer Yosef provides the energetic vocals and works the crowd. It’s hardly unusual for a vocalist to ask an audience to raise their hands in the air – but it’s not the norm for everyone present to be so enraptured by the performance that they respond to the cue. Balkan Beat Box easily build up a special rapport with their audience, resulting in a dancefloor so packed and palpitating that it eventually overflows onto the stage.
While their performances are rightly held in high esteem, their far-reaching albums, which take in an eclectic range of global sounds and styles, are just as impressive, leaving us keen to know what the writing and recording process is like for Balkan Beat Box. This varies from record to record, Ori tells me. "Each album has its own concept and its own limitations – which can be a blessing. We set our own rules for each album. But the cultural residue is wide, the canvas is stretched wide," Kaplan explains. Making an album involves a process of gathering the necessary musical shades and applying them to that canvas in a disciplined, methodical manner. "For Blue Eyed Black Boy we recorded all of the drums over two days in one studio’, Ori says. ‘And all the brass was recorded with one Roma brass band in Serbia. But that’s just one colour in the palette."
"Each song starts differently," he continues. ‘It could be with the melody, or maybe some of Tomer’s lyrics. Or sometimes it starts with a beat, or something produced by one of our guests." The inclusion of guest artists has been a feature of Balkan Beat Box’s work throughout their career. including a whole host of musicians and vocalists from the Balkans and beyond. "We try to accentuate the qualities that our guests have," Kaplan says. Maenwhile, each guest serves to evoke or pronounce different qualities in the rest of the players."Of course it’s a two way street," says Kaplan. "But we know what we want to achieve, and we have a singular aesthetic.’
The new album is certainly unique in its sheer diversity. In addition to the gypsy brass, there also are reggae inflections and hints of Latin music. As such, the name Balkan Beat Box may be misleading: none of the band members are from the Balkans, and while the region has generated some of their musical points of reference, there are many more besides. Kaplan explains that that the name came about as a result of some of the band's earliest work: "We had Bulgarian singers – the Balkan part, and beats made on a computer – so that was the beat box. Of course you won’t find our aesthetic in the Balkans, and it’s wrong to think of us as Balkan Beats – that’s not our style."
Balkan Beats has been growing as a style over the past decade, and has attracted quite a following. Mixing the melodies and brass styles of Balkan gypsy bands with the electronic beats that can be heard in clubs worldwide, it’s a highly danceable sound that is steeped in the mythologized culture of Eastern Europe. Balkan Beat Box have sometimes been classified as part of that musical movement, but Kaplan doesn’t view their work as so easily classified. "There’s that certain sound in Balkan Beats music, the oom-pah oom-pah, which has become formulaic. You won’t find that in our albums, we never fell into that cliché." He’s keen to stress that while Balkan Beat Box are one of the progenitors of the Balkan Beats scene, they have evolved beyond its parameters, attributing the band's lasting connection to the genre by pointing out that "When Balkan Beats started out there were maybe five CDs to go by, and ours was one of them...Our early work went straight from the oven and into the clubs," says Kaplan. "It was played in indie rock clubs, and listened to by hipsters. People were tired of hearing techno at that time, there was a great mix of people in New York seeking their own soundtrack. This is a New York beat, but it’s connected to music that goes back a thousand years to the Mediterranean Pond." There had previously been a few other original bands stirring up some noise in New York, and Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat had already been involved with some of them. "Tamir produced Gogol Bordello and played with Firewater, and I was in Firewater and also Gogol Bordello. Firewater was the first band that tried to mix klezmer with punk rock. Then Gogol Bordello came along and took that to the next level. They also took it further east with their Russian influences. The style I’ve developed has fitted easily into each band; it’s a mix of punk, klezmer and gypsy."
The prototype for Balkan Beat Box came out of their experience with these bands, and Tamir’s growing interest in producing more electronic music. This early manifestation of their sound can be found in a lesser known album from 2004 credited to a collective of musicians calling themselves J.U.F. This is a fantastic party album, and it’s not difficult to see how the sound it showcases evolved into Balkan Beat Box. "J.U.F. is basically Gogol Bordello vs. Balkan Beat Box," says Kaplan. "Tamir did the beats, Eugene Hütz [of Gogol Bordello] sung the vocal parts and I provided the melodies."
But there has been a definite transition between J.U.F and Blue Eyed Black Boy. The new album carries more of a message, commenting on issues such as politics and race. "We got sharper, more focused," Kaplan says. "As you grow up, it gets more important to show the world what’s going on. The situation between Israel and Palestine is one example, but there is also injustice everywhere. We have to speak about it because otherwise what we do would just be silly. Sure, it’s party music, but there has to be a deeper statement." And the hybrid musical style of Balkan Beat Box is a solid, danceable metaphor for a vision of harmony between nations and breakdown of borders, which Kaplan acknowledges, asking "If different types of music and culture can mix up together, then doesn’t that imply that there is one route for the whole world to go on?"
Does this represent a move towards the oft-overused concept of ‘world music’? Kaplan thinks not. "World music is a box made by an industry that’s trying to define itself. It’s a term that I think comes out of a sense of insecurity. But that term is too small to describe what we do." He also points out that their experiences closer to home inform Balkan Beat Box as much as the global sounds they incorporate. ‘We’re also influenced by the time we’ve spent touring in America. We’ve done the whole underground thing as well, touring in a van and sleeping in people’s houses."
Of course, Ori’s own taste in music takes in many parts of the world. Recently, he has been listening to a lot of African music, reeling off a playlist that includes Somali rapper K’naan and the dance music forms kuduro and soca. "And as for the softer side... It’s difficult to say. I have so much on my iTunes that I’m constantly listening to that I can’t remember what’s been playing most recently!" It’s not surprising to hear that his colleagues have similarly eclectic tastes, and it’s when they come together that the fully formed Balkan Beat Box sound is realised. ‘Each of us brings something different to the band. Tomer’s background is in rock and reggae, while Tamir’s is blues and punk. And I bring along the melodic baggage.’
At this point, it seems appropriate to ask Kaplan if there is any kind of music that he doesn’t like. When he’s asked to think in more negative terms he becomes less eloquent and struggles to think of a suitable response. "That’s a tough question. For me, bad music is ridiculous music, music that doesn’t know it’s bad." He asks his tour manager for suggestions, and then sings a couple of lines in very sincere sounding German as an example of ‘ridiculous music' before brushing the notion aside, opining that "it’s better to focus on the good music." This seems like sound advice from someone who has made his career out of gathering music from all over the world and blending it into Balkan Beat Box’s own unique style.