Balkan Beat Box plays what can loosely be called world music, and, while the Balkan influences are there, they’re not the only things happening in the mix. The band appropriates sounds from everywhere on the planet, always searching for the perfect beat. Dub reggae, rock, Afro-beat, jazz, hip-hop, Arab techno, klezmer, funk, Romanian wedding music, Latin, and almost anything else you’d hear walking down the streets of New York, where the band was formed, can show up in a BBB track.
“I think this mashup of styles is the future of music,” says Tamir Muskat, the band’s drummer, percussionist, and producer. “Technology is making the world smaller. Every day you can hear music from everywhere, if you open your ears for a minute. I’ve been doing this kind of stuff since I started playing as a teenager. I never wanted to play in any genre; I wanted to make up new categories.”
Muskat was born into a musical family in Tel Aviv, Israel. The city is a melting pot, with people coming from all over the world looking for a better life. Sounds from South and West Africa, Eastern Europe, the Arab world, and, of course, England and America, blare out of cafes, coffee shops, and dance clubs. “It’s like New York, only New York is bigger, with more people and more cultural mixing,” he says. “When I came to the U.S., I wasn’t shocked by the mashup of styles. It was the next logical step.”
Muskat has been playing and producing music since he was a boy. He had plenty of musical and studio chops to offer the other musicians he met in New York. When he met Ori Kaplan, sax player with Gogol Bordello, he found a like-minded soul. At first, they envisioned Balkan Beat Box as a studio project. Kaplan is also from Israel and grew up with the same international influences that Muskat wanted to explore. On their first, eponymous album, Muskat used loops and samples for the percussion tracks. By the time they made last year’s Blue Eyed Black Boy, they’d been a band for three years and the percussion tracks were recorded in real time with real instruments, then diced and sampled to give the music the dense, propulsive feel they wanted.
On their new album, Give, they take the slicing and dicing into another dimension. “Drums are diverse; they give you a whole ocean you can swim in,” says Muskat. “But today, I don’t say I’m a drummer; I say I’m a musician. The drums are just another tool to generate ideas. Other than drums, the computer is my main instrument. I also use keyboards, guitars, and whatever else is needed for a track.
“On every album, I tend to have an overall concept and I limit myself to that,” Muskat explains. Since today’s digital tools give musicians an almost endless palette of sounds they can choose from, this seems like a wise strategy. Muskat usually takes rhythm samples from his own playing, but this time he also used old Casio drum machines and a Roland 808.
“When I find sounds I like, I record them onto 1/4" analogue tape, then I process it until it sounds different. By using my hands on the machine, I can slow it down or speed it up and throw in screwed-up shifts of tempo to create different pitches and give the sounds new life. Every little sound is handcrafted; doing it on tape gives the patterns more personality and I can feel a difference when I work this way. You can’t always [consciously] hear all the percussion on the album, but every beat contributes to the overall feel.”
Give was recorded at Muskat’s home studio, Vibromonk East, in Tel Aviv. It’s a big room fully equipped with vintage analogue tools, with no booths to separate producer from musicians. The band’s core — Muskat, Kaplan, and singer/lyricist/second percussionist/drummer Tomer Yosef — gathered each morning and worked all day creating beats, melodies, and lyrics. All three have families nearby, so the sessions were treated like a regular workday — in by 10 a.m. and out by 6 p.m. — although the work on the record wasn’t strictly linear. They’d do a month of intense studio work, then take time off to tour, work on solo projects, and listen to what they’d recorded with an ear to shaping the final mix.
Muskat doesn’t go about making songs in the usual way, by layering things up from the rhythm tracks. If he wants to add bass or guitar as a track evolves, he calls up one of the touring members of the band and they come in and lay down the required part. Some songs start with drums, some with a vocal from Yosef, some with a melody from Kaplan’s sax. The method gives the arrangements the push and pull of a live gig, with the parts constantly morphing in unexpected directions. They never know exactly where they’re going until they get there. “If I’m working on a beat, Ori will be composing a melody, and Tomer will be writing three pages of lyrics. We record and cut and paste and by the end of a ten-hour session, we have a song, or the skeleton of a song.”
On this album, the band gave a lot of attention to the lyrics and wrote several political songs inspired by the Occupy Movement in America and The Arab Spring demonstrations. All three band members have young children and feel a responsibility to make the world a better place for their sake. “We made an album about some of the issues they’ll face growing up. We want to encourage them to take responsibility and change the world for the better. We’ve always been a politically active band, but now it’s like we’re in overdrive.”
Give may be the most diverse album the band has done. “No Man’s Land” rides a classic hip-hop beat and brings to mind a jam session featuring a Balkan brass band and Parliament Funkadelic. “Urge To Be Violent” has hints of Americana, twang-y surf-meets–spaghetti western guitars and an odd Eastern European backbeat; “Look Like You” features a bouncy, Balkanized soca rhythm and “Enemy In Economy,” the most political track, has a deep dub reggae feel. The song tells the true story of the band’s detention by Homeland Security after being mistaken for a gang of terrorists on a routine flight between gigs.