Balkan Beat Box
Balkan Beat Box are back and they're tighter than ever. It's been two years since the release of BBB's last album, Blue Eyed Black Boy and big changes have taken place in the world and in the band's lives - and they've brought it all back home with the release of Give (Nat Geo Music), their most musically intense and lyrically explosive album yet.
Recorded primarily at Tel Aviv's Vibromonk East studio, Give was conceived of as "a smaller, more introverted album," according to Ori Kaplan. It was fun for us to see what just came out of the three of us while we played with old analog synths and children's toys".
Brimming over with handcrafted beats and samples, Give yields up BBB's the most textured sonic palette of their career. "This is our most hardcore album so far," says Tamir Muskat. "Definitely musically - there's more of a harder-edged, electronic sound. The songs and their subjects are also kind of darker and more political."
"It was just the three of us in the studio this time," says frontman Tomer Yosef. "No guests, just us, and I think that concentrated our sound like never before."
"When we're together there's something that just works", Tomer adds. "We go into the studio in the morning and each of us just has an idea and we leave at the end of the day with a song that's almost finished. That's still incredible to me."
For the uninitiated, Balkan Beat Box first burst out of New York City's underground music scene in 2005, with a self-titled debut that introduced the world to their Mediterranean-inflected, globalized electronica sound.
Founded by Israeli-born ex-pats Ori Kaplan (ex-Gogol Bordello), Tamir Muskat (ex-Firewater), the band built their reputation on explosive live shows, becoming an audience favorite and a critic's darling. BBB soon added frequent collaborator Tomer Yosef as frontman - his wild onstage energy galvanizing live audiences ever since.
The three emerged as a cohesive songwriting trio on 2007's Nu Med - Tamir crafting hard-edged beats, Ori orchestrating melodies and Tomer writing the hard-hitting lyrics - and took their sound to Belgrade and other points East on 2010's Blue Eyed Black Boy, their first for the Nat Geo Music label.
Inspired by last year's people's protest movements across the globe - from the Arab Spring, to Occupy Wall St., to Israel's own massive social protests Give captures the cautious hope and angry spirit of our time.
Ori puts it even more forcefully, explaining that Give is about "our dissatisfaction with the social economic and political systems which govern our lives and set the tone for what kind of world our children will live in. It's about our support to the various movements and revolutions taking place in the world, and the fight against corporate greed that has gripped our society and paralyzed or bought off our leaders".
This smoldering new anger is made crystal clear on songs like "Political
Fuck" and "Enemy In Economy", which tells the true story of Tomer's detention by TSA authorities after being mistaken for a terrorist on an Alaska Airlines flight.
"We were on tour and I had just gotten this new camera, so I was taking a lot of pictures on the plane," Tomer explains "and this one stewardess she got freaked out because there was this dark skinned, Arab-looking guy - me! - taking pictures on her flight. So when we landed they held us on the ground while a sheriff and 15 officers came on the plane and took me off in handcuffs. They had dogs on the tarmac and everything! They held me for questioning for over two hours before they let me go. I guess they must have Googled me or something. I have to say that the Sheriff was very nice, but the whole thing was just crazy and really pissed me off".
BBB's rage burns brightest in one particular suite of songs - "Money", "Minimal", "Porno Clown" and "Look Like You" - which introduce a character that Ori calls the "fantasy man". A stereotypical "big shot capitalist" on a collision course with insanity thanks to his empty materialist values. Or, as Ori puts it "He finds himself in a demented moral state, and leaves the façade of his life behind, shedding his skin only to find himself lonely isolated and mute". The consumerist is finally consumed.
One of the other animating forces on Give is fatherhood - all three members have become fathers since the recording of their last album, and Tomer explains how that influenced the band's outlook:
"When you have kids, you become a little more aware of what's happening in the world and what kind of world that we're leaving your kids. When we started looking around, we didn't like what we saw and that gave us the urge to speak out, to use the little power that we have to change things."
"It was kind of a crazy vibe in the studio sometimes," Tamir laughs. "We were recording some of our most hardcore songs ever, but our kids would be there, too, running around and playing in the middle of everything. I think it gave things a hopeful vibe, too? it reminds us that we're fighting for something, not just against everything".
That hopefulness emerges most fully on "Part of The Glory", a meditation on the role of social media and YouTube, which Ori describes as "how we all have something unique in us. How we have these glorious talents that we display on YouTube. But how in spite of that we live with this shadow society of migrant workers and "illegal aliens" who run the engines of our world, and how we choose to ignore them in real life'.
Like all great social protest music, from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to The Clash to Rage Against The Machine - Give offers up a complicated, complex message. It's equal parts anger and hope - forcing us to take a hard, sobering look at the world we live in now, while pointing to a better world that we can achieve if we choose.
Blue Eyed Black Boy: 2010
Recorded in Belgrade, Vienna and Tel Aviv, Blue Eyed Black Boy takes BBB to the roots of their unique, "New Mediterranean" sound, going to the source and scouring the Balkans and beyond for unique collaborations and new inspirations for their globalized urban mashups. Featuring the singles "War Again" and "Move It," Blue Eyed Black Boy marks the return of Ori Kapan, Tamir Muskat and Tomer Yosef - a.k.a. Balkan Beat Box - with their first album of all new material since 2007, and the group's debut for the Nat Geo Music label. Blue Eyed Black Boy is due out on April 27th.
Ori Kaplan, Tamir Muskat and Tomer Yosef are Balkan Beat Box.
For the uninitiated, Balkan Beat Box first burst out of New York City's underground music scene in 2005, with their self-titled debut that introduced the world to their multikulti musical mashup.
Founded by Israeli-born ex-pats Ori Kaplan (ex-Gogol Bordello) and Tamir Muskat (ex-Firewater), the band built their reputation on explosive live shows, becoming an audience favorite and a critic's darling. BBB soon added frequent collaborator Tomer Yosef as frontman -his wild onstage energy galvanizing live audiences ever since. The three emerged as a cohesive songwriting trio on 2007's Nu Med, and found that each had strengths that complimented the others.
"It's always amazing when the three of us get together in the studio," says Kaplan. "It's a great dynamic that none of us ever had before in a band, a true collaboration. Each of us has his specialty, Tamir brings the beats and production, Tomer is the lyricist, and I do the melodies and the horns. We trigger off each other."
"We have a natural dynamic in creating music," Tomer agrees, "everyone is well aware of what each of us does best, so we never really officially divided the responsibility... we always make decisions together about everything."
Together the three created an entirely new sound - equal parts Balkan-Mediterranean tradition, punk intensity, electronic cool, jazz discipline and hip-hop swagger - and now they take it to the next level on Blue Eyed Black Boy.
"With every record we always want to surprise people and be ahead of the curve," says Ori. "We were one of the first 'Gypsy Punk' bands. But the Balkan Beat Box sound is totally our own. There's not even a name for it yet. We want to go way past trends and always go deeper and wider."
But even though BBB have been living and creating abroad these past few years, they still retain a very New York attitude:
"We can create the BBB sound anywhere - it can be in outer space - as long as the three of us are together in a room," says Ori. "But we're definitely still a New York band, it's where we first got together, where we had our education, our success, everything that defines us. You can't just shake off 17 years of your life and say 'okay, now we're something else'. The monster was unleashed in New York, and now it can go wherever it wants, but it needs to return home every few months, to pee on a few walls and mark its territory. "
"I wouldn't call us just a NY band," adds Tomer. "In my opinion Blue Eyed Black Boy is the most international project there is, it contains so many elements of cultures and colors that makes it a kind of a happy homeless project."
"I would say we are a very international band." Tamir concurs. "But BBB is NY born & raised. It all starts there with a bunch of immigrants bringing their music to a city that can take it all. What makes our sound different is that New York is very demanding on artists, we learned how to deliver our ideas very fast & focused. Now we're taking that sound and confidence and unleashing it on the world."
Blue Eyed Black Boy
Recorded in Belgrade, Vienna and Tel Aviv Blue Eyed Black Boy reflects BBB's recent travels by taking the group's very new world sound back to its old world roots.
"We wanted to work in a different environment, refresh ourselves a little bit," says Ori.
"We also wanted to collaborate with authentic Roma, gypsy musicians. Gypsy music and Balkan music have a very wild sound, and we're punks at heart, so naturally we look for that."
Belgrade made a big impression on BBB, where riots in the streets contrasted with the creative calm of the recording studio.
"While we were in Belgrade there were anti-Kosovo demonstrations and riots, and mobs tried to burn down the American embassy," Ori explains. "It was a very tense atmosphere, but we were in our studio, away from all that, translating that intense energy into something positive and good."
"Belgrade was an amazing experience," adds Tamir. These sessions will stay with me. We landed on the biggest day of riots in the city, millions in the streets, political revolution; the spirit was intense, but during the day we were deep in the woods, in a recording studio from the 1950s - one that was used to make film music. We were meeting all this amazing gypsy musicians & managing to have a great musical dialog with them."
Working with local artists like the Orkestar Jovice Ajdarevica brass band, Serbian singer Svetlana Spajic and members of gypsy band Kal, BBB mined the region for the raw, uncut Balkan soul.
"We recorded the brass band in a very wild manner," says Tomer. "Like it was done 50 years ago. I knew its going to be chaotic but we went with it, and in the end it brought so much magic to the album."
"But we didn't just want to make a Balkan brass extravaganza and take the hit songs of the Balkans and flatten them out for Western ears," adds Ori. "Whenever we work with other artists, we try to get them to do something they've never done before; to get them to come out of their comfort zones. The idea is to take the essence of what they do, and distill it to the hardcore, and work with that. So we were composing for these artists; they learned our music but played it their way, so in the end you didn't know where it came from. It was something totally new; and it was a real collaboration."
The band also created a complete library of original beats for Blue Eyed Black Boy. Tomer explains: "I like to impose creative limitations before we start working on an album, to make us focus. So on Blue Eyed Black Boy we recorded a full library of beats and drum sounds that we played by hand, and only used these - no pre-made samples or loops, it gives the album a very organic sound."
This organic approach holds the album together under the weight of so many different styles - not just Balkan sounds, but electronica, cumbia and even a little Afrobeat get the BBB mashup on Blue Eyed Black Boy.
The album's title track comes not only from BBB's constant assault on cultural boundaries, but also from some personal inspiration. "Tamir recorded a beat for the album," explains Tomer, "at the time my wife gave birth to our first child, and since I'm a dark skinned person and my wife has blue eyes, Tamir thought about us and named the beat 'Blue Eyed Black Boy'. This was such a strong image, that I immediately started writing lyrics about racism and outcasts."
Tamir adds: "For me it symbolizes the absurdity of how, after thousands of years of clashes between people of different color - all colors, everywhere - we now find ourselves in a generation that's the ultimate mix of people, the way nature maybe wanted it to be."
On "War Again," BBB comes out swinging on this balls-out, horns blaring, sirens wailing, bass-thumping anti-war polemic. Maybe the most danceable protest song ever recorded, "War Again" rages against the constant state of war that BBB finds their homeland of Israel embroiled in again and again. "We want people to understand that we are part of a loop of war and violence that is happening forever, and that it's up to us to get out of it." Explains Tomer.
"We always wanted to break this stupid border and show how ridiculous it is," says Ori. "We've always thought that all borders are artificial, in music and in politics. We can achieve a brotherhood onstage with musicians from all over the world. If a bunch of musicians can do it, how hard can it be?"
This is the question - and the challenge - that Balkan Beat Box poses to the world on Blue Eyed Black Boy: how hard can it be to tear down the borders that divide us? With BBB providing the soundtrack, it should be easy to unite one planet under a groove.