Musicians Without Borders

Posted December 3, 2008 in Music Features

Like any traditional music that gets welded with the seam of modern beat, Balkan Beat Box (BBB) was born out of a Diaspora melting pot. The sort of pressure cooker formed only by the mass urban carpets of places like New York City. There, klezmer music has the freedom to wormhole itself in your ear from a rotten old stereo in an eatery, and then later, wrap itself around the thud of a hip-hop track that roars from a car passing you; it is the aural ambiance of the global city.
“It was very important, I don’t think we would be the same without the experiences Ori and I’ve had in NYC. The urban and edgy sound of the city is a huge part of BBB. Definitely it’s in the beat-making and the sonic aesthetics of the band – the energy and the craziness of NYC. Of course it affects us, everything that comes into our systems will be digested BBB-style and will be somehow expressed in our music. It doesn’t have to be a direct influence, it can be a cool beat you hear, or a beautiful voice from somewhere.”

After a youth spent in Israel, the mainstays of the BBB – Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat – both met in Brooklyn. Kaplan had been a klezmer clarinetist and Muskat apprenticed himself as a drummer in a punk band.

“I don’t think we ever found the world of punk limiting. It’s always tricky. As you mentioned, the spirit is what got us, it’s always there. We don’t think about it too much, it’s a part of us. The energy is definitely on stage. The need to say and talk about whatever we feel like talking about, without really giving a fuck about how it’s going to come out in other peoples mind.”
After looking up the lyrics of Adir Admiri from their first album, I figured out the haunting female chant was saying “Hallelu adir adirim barukh u-m’hullal Adonai.” With no idea of the direct translation, or even a language to source it in (it’s probably Hebrew though) – it always stood to me as “something something something something something.”

That’s the funny thing that happens when you listen to music that speaks to you through the confusion of Babylonian tongues. There’s just a moment of embarrassment when you drop feigning intelligence, and start to root for the more primal communication of the beat, in all its mischievous mirth. Mixing discordant cultural traditions into the conversation of dance is something they’ve played with a lot, so much to the extent that they often share stages in Israel with Palestinian hip-hop artists.

“Growing up in a constant conflict zone you’d have to be deaf to not relate somehow to the environment. It’s natural at this point to say what we think in a way that would not fall into a political thing. We are first musicians and the music is a rave, a party, maybe this is why a message can work as it comes out of a very joyous moment. Our live shows are joyous and show just the opposite of war and conflict.”

Both producers retain their connection to the experimental base that launched them in Brooklyn. As a former member of Gogol Bordello, Ori Kaplan pioneered the popularization of the collision between various ethnic music, and punk bands willingness to break traditions.

“We were experimenting with the BBB elements for many years, it wasn’t a bright day that brought this music to life, it was a process, a long one. Growing up with Mediterranean folk music, at the same time, the ‘80s was happening to the sounds of electronica.”
JUF (Jewish Ukranian Freundschaft) is another side project Tamir Muskat  works on with singer Euegene Hutz. They view it as a throw down between the hyped gypsy skank Gogol Bordello and the more personal interests of Tamir.

With such templates open to them, it’s no surprise that their latest album Nu Med featured rappers from Syria and Palestine, and then there was a clarinetist from Macedonia and more singers from Israel, Bulgaria and Morocco. There’s the deep deep island ragga of tracks like Digital Monkey, crashing with tints of a grime flow. Other tracks like Delancey have rolling bass rips that throw around with the bleeping twitches of an old acid rave line. There’s some rare gabber kicks and ace emotive nu-metal power chord punches too.

In the studio, they are tracing another line of a very local tradition that became global. BBB are steeped in studio techniques first expressed in Jamaican music.

“We come from old school studio techniques, more like dub, that analog style. But the computer is a big part of how we make music. There is no one way for us, we have all the toys we like with us in the studio and when something feels right, it’s in. We can start a track completely acoustic and end up splicing it like crazy. We love what happened to sound and recording techniques in the last five to ten years with the computer becoming the main tool.”

They seem to agree with music academics that the PC has uprooted and displaced instruments like the drum from Angola and it has become the primal element in universal music production. Balkan Beat Box themselves are tearing down the separations that give world music its often right, and often wrong, reputation as a gloomy experience. Whatever you do, don’t miss them and maybe, sneak in a hip flask too yeah?


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