For the past decade, Balkan Beat Box has forged a sound that attempts to bridge multiple musical worlds – from the organic to the technological, as well as from the personally reflective to the globally political.
So when it came time to record its most recent album, 2012’s Give, the band’s three Israeli-born frontmen – saxophonist Ori Kaplan, drummer Tamir Muskat and vocalist Tomer Yosef – engaged in a bit of deconstruction. They shoved its lottery of sounds and styles into a room and went to work.
“The album before that (2010’s Blue Eyed Black Boy) had many guests,” said Kaplan last week from his current home in Vienna, Austria. “But with the Give album, the three of us just sat in a room with a bunch of analog electronic equipment. We started brainstorming and a lot accumulated along with, I guess, a bunch of changes in our perspectives. It was just good for us to sit down and create this electronic world in different songs.
“Another aspect of it was that this was when the Arab Spring was going on. So was Occupy Wall Street. A lot of that social unrest and frustration touched us, so we wrote about it.”
In turn, the music the trio created began to touch the world. One of Give’s most potent tunes (which boasts a title that is a touch too salty for print) was made into a video with protest images that coincided with the Arab Spring protests. As the release of the record also coincided with the beginnings of the Syrian Civil War, the video was re-edited, without the band’s permission or involvement, to introduce the world to the horrors of that conflict. It was regularly broadcast on the Arabic news network Al Jazeera.
“Re-editing the content of the video was a small deal compared to the fact that an Israeli band made the clip of the week on Al Jezeera. That was very cool. And I heard that in cafes in Beirut, people really liked it. It just shows you how music can cross borders to help people communicate with one another. Maybe that’s a lesson for all of us to learn about communication.”
While the Balkan Beat Box principals all hail from Tel Aviv (“politically, the place is a disaster; musically, it is very rich”), the band got its start in Brooklyn where they pursued decidedly different musical agendas. Kaplan’s included immersion in a fertile improvisatory jazz scene in New York alongside giants like bassist William Parker and trombonist Steve Swell.
“Definitely my journey in New York was about finding a language, about finding my improvisational voice. That was an important period for me, playing with these amazing musicians like William Parker and so many others. But when Balkan Beat Box took over, there was no longer time for these smaller projects. We were about creating a language that communicated with a lot of people. We found it, became successful and started touring around the world. But for me, the search for that language began with the improvisers from New York.”
The band name, Kaplan said, was devised to describe the meeting ground where the band’s modern beats and grooves blended with more roots conscious fabrics of jazz, soul and folk.
“Balkan Beat Box says everything in encapsulated form. Balkan is folk and the Beat Box is the computer. It’s where the folk meets the modern digital world.
“The thing is, Tamir is a great drummer, Tomer is a great singer. Everything we do meshes up together. We are organic and digital people. The combination of people is such that Tamir is more in charge of the beats and production, I’m more the guy who comes up with the melodies and Tomer comes up with the lyrics. But we interject into each other’s work all the time because we always sit in the same room. We all have opinions, shape the music and tend to agree. We all shape it and then create our own aesthetic. We know it now when we hear it. It’s like, ‘Oh, this is us.’”
Balkan Beat Box performs at 10 p.m. Nov.25 at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. Tickets are $15. Call (859) 309-9499 or got to www.cosmic-charlies.com.