Balkanic eruption

New York-based Israeli electro-folk band Balkan Beat Box has emerged as a top international act, with its distinct approach and all-around good vibes.

Balkan Beat Box 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Balkan Beat Box 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If it’s Tuesday, this must be Vienna. Ori Kaplan is truly a citizen of the world – the saxophonist for the Balkan Beat Box was born and raised in Israel, has spent well over a decade living in New York City, and now, at least for the time being, hangs his klezmer-meets-hip hop hat in Vienna, where his wife’s job recently sent the couple with their year-old baby.
“I’ve barely been here the last few months, but my stuff is here, and it’s my home base right now,” said Kaplan last week from his home. It was a couple weeks after the celebrated Israeli trio of Kaplan, drummer Tamir Muskat and rapper/percussionist/resident wild man Tomer Yosef – along with a support cast of like-minded gyspy electropunk collaborators appeared at the Lollapolooza Festival in support of Lady Gaga, a few days after they headlined a packed end-of-summer Friday afternoon rave in Gan Sacher in Jerusalem, and a couple weeks before take the stage on September 28 during Hol Hamoed Succot at the Tamar Festival at the Dead Sea.
It’s been a remarkable summer for undoubtedly the three hottest Israelis on the international music scene.
Boasting a manic, high energy stage show where anything is possible, and a strong new album – Black Eyed Blue Boy – BBB is fearless, whether accosting a sea of Lady Gaga fans, or rocking secular Jerusalem as Shabbat begins to descend on the holy city.
“They’re good dancers, and we play music with beat – so why shouldn’t they be dancing?” queried Kaplan about the Gaga fans who were decked out in high heels, bizarre clothes and huge glasses in honor of their hero.
According to one reviewer, “Balkan Beat Box converted literally hundreds of people who had never heard of their music into long time fans… the result is nothing short of genius.”
Flash forward a couple weeks later, and BBB whipped the Jerusalem crowd into a frenzy, a scene that Kaplan wasn’t expecting.
“It was fantastic, seeing secular Jerusalem come out – there was a spring break vibe and everybody was on fire,” he said. “I had always thought that Jerusalem was all Orthodox, and there was a heaviness there, like the atmosphere weighed 1,000 pounds. But this was so positive and fun.”
Positive fun has been BBB’s goal ever since Kaplan, Muskat and Yosef joined forces after the kindred spirits discovered each other in New York. Kaplan, who has a serous music background in jazz, klezmer and studies at the Rimonim Academy of Music, was playing with New York gypsy punks Gogol Bordello, and found himself joining the global indie musical collective Firewater, whose drummer was Muskat. Yosef, who honed his maniacal stage presence as a DJ and stand-up comic provided the missing link to the puzzle.
“We found each other and created our own musical language,” said Kaplan. “We started playing for immigrants, or offsprings of immigrants in New York who were looking for their own identity within the city’s immigrant mosaic. In an era that was producing soulless techno music without any flair, we were creating a sound that sounded true. Every ethnic group came to us and said, ‘wow, that’s my sound!’” That sound – a melting pot of klezmer, hip-hop, electro- beats and dancehall – combined with a hyperactive live show has catapulted BBB into one of the premier live attractions on the planet. According to Kaplan, the energy isn’t forced, it erupts when the band takes the stage.
“Even in my jazz days I was full of energy,” said Kaplan.
“Each one of us was always kind of intense in any band we had played in before. I guess Tomer is the most intense, but we’re all intense performers. Irregardless of which band we played with in the past, I think we’ve brought this immigrant, downtown urban kind of movement to the mix which involved energetic shows. I think Gogol Bordello provide some inspiration, the music is very different, but that energy level, it stayed with all of us – the theatrics of the stage, how to captivate an audience, Gogol are masters at that.”
With their performances so infused with electricity and movement, the band’s records have required an alternative to the extremely visual element inherent in BBB’s persona. And Kaplan feels that they’ve found the perfect mix in Black Eyed Blue Boy. Recorded in part in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, and features local Roma (gypsy) musicians, the record is more nuanced than their live shows.
“I think that studio records shouldn’t just sound like a live show. A concert is a different experience. A record involved a ridiculous year of work, you focus on every detail and really tailor something, it’s an artistic experience,” he said.
“There are some band that have exciting live shows but can’t translate them into a studio experience, so you end up being quite bored listening to it. On albums, you need to leave some space for other levels besides intensity and I think Blue Eyed Black Boy succeeds – I still enjoy listening to it, and still go ‘wow!’ It’s an audio experience that you can listen to in your car, and you don’t have to be going crazy in a club. Then, people can come to the show and get extra value because of that live energy.”
With all those molecules bouncing off each other onstage, it would be easy for band to collide and explode. But according to Kaplan, there’s a focused sense of center that engulfs the band offstage, even the stage-diving Yosef.
“Everybody’s quite calm offstage. Put us on a stage and we get this electric energy, but in reality, we’re quite normal. We have a strong connection, we’ve known each other for over five years, and there’s a lot of good humor experiences on the road. Nobody’s jumping off the wall driving one another crazy, there’s not egos to massage,” said Kaplan.
Another factor bringing the band together is their Israeliness, a badge Kaplan says they wear proudly, and use in musical messages in an attempt to forge coexistence through dancing.
“I very much still feel Israeli, even though I’ve been in New York for 16 years. Sometimes I fell quite submerged in the local culture, but I reconnected with the Israeli culture, especially in the last six years. We’re always jiving around in Hebrew, and we’re frequently in Israel performing,” said Kaplan.
“Everybody knows where we come from – we talk about it all the time in interviews. It’s part of who we are as a band – we’re not just an American trio playing music that’s ethnic flavored, it would be kind of weird if we were from Michigan and doing that.”
The clearly Left-leaning politics of the band, which comes across in their material, is exemplified by their credo: “The members of Balkan Beat Box do not believe in flags, nationalities or borders.”
But Kaplan said the statement refers to a more musical philosophy than a political one. Still, it has endeared them to a wide international audience, including Palestinians abroad, whom Kaplan said come up to them after shows expressing admiration for such sentiments coming from Israelis.
The band’s broad strokes of lyrical activism will likely go down well this month when they headline the Tamar Festival at the Dead Sea. As part of a double bill with Matisyahu. The pairing marks the continuation of a long relationship that began when the then-fledgling band opened up a large arena tour for the already popular Hassidic rocker in 2006.
“We really enjoyed touring with him – there were around 8,000 people every night and we were unknown – we had to earn our keep every night and we made a lot of new fans,” said Kaplan. “We had to work really hard, and Matisyahu was always super appreciative of that. I hope we’ll be doing something together at the festival – we’ll have some fun with him.”
For Kaplan, as well as Yosef and Muskat, every new audience is a treated like new potential fans waiting to be won over. And in doing that, they’ve experienced a wealth of challenges and opportunities. Or as Kaplan puts it, “If Lady Gaga fans can relate to us, then there should be not problem with anyone else.”
For more information on the Tamar Festival, which will also feature performances by Asaf Avidan and the Mojos, Idan Raichel, Geva Alon, The Yehudim and many more, visit