Imagine a klezmer band where the vocalists rap in English, chant in Arabic, and sing in Spanish and Serbian. That band is Balkan Beat Box, a group led by two Israelis — Ori Kaplan (saxophone) and Tamir Muskat (drums) — who merge traditional Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Eastern European sounds with hip-hop and electronica.
With the release of their third album, Balkan Beat Box continues to ride the wave of a Gypsy Revival that includes groups such as Slavic Soul Party, Raya Brass Band, and Gogol Bordello, with whom Kaplan has played. In August, Balkan Beat Box performed at Lollapalooza, one of the country’s premier music festivals. They are now wrapping up their North American tour dates with gigs on September 4 in Seattle and September 5 in Toronto, before heading to Israel for a show at the end of the month.
On their latest record, “Blue Eyed Black Boy,” Balkan Beat Box once again fuses cultures, languages and musical styles. Roma musicians from Serbia add to the band’s “Gypsy” sound, which stems from their use of minor scales played with speed and precision on horns, accordion and guitar. Beneath these instruments, repetitive bass grooves and a plethora of percussion add festiveness to the vibe.
On most songs, Balkan Beat Box’s third member, MC Tomer Yosef, raps with an Island-inflected delivery as he spits out familiar reggae and hip-hop tropes. As the album title suggests, many of the songs celebrate diversity and call for tolerance. On “Look Dem Act,” Yosef raps: “There’s a real strong smell of Armageddon/And I’m Mediterranean/I’m a Yemeni Arab Isrealian.” Elsewhere, references to perpetual war and “soldiers on the border” don’t require much of a mental leap to suggest the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Several tunes on the album are instrumental dance jams (‘80s kids may dig a guitar riff that sounds like the theme song to “Knight Rider.”) “She’s My Baby” is an old-fashioned love song. And “Dancing with the Moon” is a nostalgic exhortation to boogie. “So put on the record that we used to listen to/When we found the truth.”
Beneath the message of peace, love and understanding, this band’s politics are backed by a party.
Watch Balkan Beat Box play at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in New York City on August 7, 2010: