Balkan Beat Box is on top of the world

Boston Globe, March 27, 2009

The band’s name is Balkan Beat Box. Its core membership is three Israelis who found their voice in New York subcultures and whose sound encompasses Arabic rap, Moroccan gnawa, mariachi, and dub in an electronically infused cocktail. And when the band hits the Paradise Wednesday, it’ll be fresh from Mexico City, where it has a huge outdoor gig this weekend in the central plaza, the Zocalo, sharing a bill with Asian Dub Foundation, the London Indo-punk massive.

Orthodox, these guys are not. Not in their Jewishness, squarely anchored at the secular, pluralistic end of the spectrum, and even less so in their musical sensibility. But don’t confuse Balkan Beat Box with one of those goofy world-fusion jam bands that peddle low-impact exotica to undiscerning ears. It may be a party band – its live shows are famously raucous – but its members have the spirit of researchers and activists.

The band’s recent journeys have taken it to places like Tel Aviv, Mexico City, and Belgrade, cofounder Ori Kaplan says, recording with local musicians for its third album, due out later this year. In Serbia, Kaplan says, band members shared techniques and compositions with some of the country’s Roma, or Gypsy, village bands.

“We were writing music for them and teaching them our compositions,” Kaplan says. “It wasn’t just taking a Gypsy brass band and adding an electronic beat. We had a real musical exchange with Gypsy culture.”

Kaplan, who plays saxophone and woodwinds, is speaking on the phone from Vienna, where he is temporarily based while his fiancee, who is Bosnian, is there on a work assignment. The Austrian capital is more vibrant than its stodgy reputation suggests, he says: “Every week you find a band that’s like your dream band.” And he’s enjoying easy access to Eastern Europe.

These items are related. Although his band’s music extends far beyond the Balkan reference in its name, the intense mixing of European, Jewish, Muslim, and Roma cultures that has taken place in the region for centuries is probably the band’s core feedstock. And these days in Europe, that mixing is more vibrant than ever, Kaplan says.

“There’s a real cultural exchange,” he says, pointing to the short driving distances among central European capitals. “In New York, it’s more distance and nostalgia; people are re-creating themselves. Here, they bring it with them.”

That said, it was New York’s “urban urgency,” as Kaplan calls it, that gave birth to Balkan Beat Box and fostered its early audience around vigorous club performances and two albums, one eponymous in 2005, and the other, “Nu-Med” (as in the new Mediterranean), in 2007.

“They’re a quintessential New York band,” says Bill Bragin, director of public programming at Lincoln Center, who has watched the group emerge on the scene. “They’re also a band of immigrants; each one is at a minimum bicultural.”

Before forming Balkan Beat Box, Kaplan and drummer and electronics guru Tamir Muskat worked with pioneering neo-Gypsy performance ensemble Gogol Bordello in New York. The third core member, vocalist and all-around agitator Tomer Yosef, divides his time between New York and Tel Aviv.

“It was one of those eye-opening experiences being right in the middle of a golden era in New York,” Kaplan says of the Gogol phase – referring to the rise of Eastern European sounds in hip circles, a trend partly fueled by the rise of a progressive Jewish aesthetic curious to hear these sounds in new settings.

“It’s this somewhat new tendency in Jewish music that points to the idea of a Jewish identity, not in isolation, but in conversation with other traditions,” Bragin says.

While New York is still their center of gravity, the band’s members are now happily unmoored from its cultural compartments. Musically, they are introducing still more ingredients to the mix – particularly from Latin America, Kaplan says, with rhythms like Brazilian batucada on the upcoming record.

They’re achieving more lyrical sophistication as well, Kaplan says, loosening the reliance on groove and putting more into the structure and emotional content of songs. “We dig deeper on this album,” he says.

Most of all, they’re hyper-conscious of the journey that animates not just their geographical movements but also their ideas.

“We don’t want to be pigeonholed, and I feel like we have avoided that,” Kaplan says. “We are lucky to have an audience that is loyal that way. We’re kind of like a workshop, an art house.”