“We were all taken in, but Tomer triggered it by taking pictures of our friends with his phone. A stewardess got nervous and ‘profiled’ him. They took us off the plane and held us for three hours, but at the end, we were joking with the security people and they were apologizing. We had good English and were able to explain ourselves. It got us thinking about people who may be from Iraq or Egypt and haven’t done anything, but don’t have enough English to explain themselves. We were able to clear it up quickly and it became a good song and a funny story we can tell, but people can get stuck in jail and held as a terrorist.”
Muskat never thought of doing anything but playing music. His father taught organ and ran a music conservatory. Muskat grew up around stages and classrooms full of instruments and took piano and violin lessons as a boy. His father’s family came from Romania; his mother was Polish; and he had grandparents who played folkloric music; but he avoided traditional sounds at first. “Like all kids, I ran away from the music my parents loved, then did a big loop and came back to it, but with a twist.”
Muskat’s BBB Setup
Drums Gretsch, Ludwig, or Rogers (vintage)
1 22" x 14" Bass Drum
2 14" x 5" Snare Drum
3 13" x 9" Tom
4 16" x 16" Floor Tom
5 14" x 5" Auxiliary Snare Drum
Cymbals Sabian or Zildjian A
A 14" Hi-Hat
B 16" Crash
C 18" Crash
D 14" Crash
Percussion (usually LP)
G Korg Kaossilator
H M-Audio Oxygen Keyboard
I Akai MPC 1000 Sampler
Tamir Muskat also uses Remo Ambassador coated heads and 5A sticks (any brand)
Muskat started playing drums early on, but his parents refused to buy him a drum kit. They let him play other instruments, but drew the line at percussion. Their resistance made him even more determined to be a drummer. When he was 13, his parents finally reneged and got him a drum kit, but he was already proficient, having had access to instruments at the conservatory. Once he had his own kit, there was no stopping him.
He put together a recording studio in his family’s basement, got a 4-track tape recorder, and started producing music for himself and his friends. Two years later, he moved up to a 16-track setup. He started recording thrash metal and electronic music with a folkloric edge. “I came back to the music of my parents and the international sounds that I heard all around me and started to mash up Middle Eastern stuff with a punk-rock attitude. Even back then I was interested in breaking up the traditional drum kit.” He invented weird tunings and glued together his own percussion instruments from stuff he found on the streets. Today, he has a suitcase full of African, Cuban, and Middle Eastern drums. “The BBB sound is always changing, so I want to push the envelope. I never go with the familiar. I like to play drums in ways they were never meant to be used.”
In 1996, he came to New York with Izabo (pronounced “is a bow”), a band that played Arab-flavored space music. When the band went back to Israel, Muskat stayed and was soon an in-demand session player and favorite sideman for a wide variety of bands, including the ska/jazz/klezmer outfit Firewater, as well as The Big Lazy, a cinematic Americana trio with guitarist Stephen Ulrich and stand-up bass player Paul Dugan. It’s about as far from Balkan Beat Box as you can get. “I listen to all kinds of music and loved their trance-y Americana sound, but even then, my beats were all over the pace. I never go with what the song suggests. I like adding my weird groove to it. I don’t do it to change the music; I just have to put out what I have in me.”
Later on, he started Vibromonk Records with Dan Shatzky. It became a production studio known for its eclectic approach to recording. He didn’t want to stay a session musician; he wanted put out his own projects and produce other artists. One of those early projects was an album for Ori Kaplan, the sax player with Gogol Bordello. Kaplan introduced Muskat to Gogol frontman Eugene Hutz and the trio began collaborating under the ambitious moniker Jüdisch-Ukrainische Freundschaft.
Hutz wanted to make original tracks to play when he did DJ gigs. The recording process started by mashing up the Ukrainian gypsy-punk stuff Hutz brought in with all kinds of Eastern European sounds. It wasn’t meant to be an album, just a collection tracks for Hutz to play in clubs, but when the Stinky label heard it, they put it out as Gogol Bordello Vs. Tamir Muskat. It never sold much, but the work Kaplan and Muskat did on the project planted the seeds that grew into Balkan Beat Box.
These days, Muskat and lead singer and percussionist Tomer Yosef generate the complex rhythm patterns at the core of the band, both on stage and in the studio. After years of playing together, their creative process is now mostly intuitive. “In the studio, we don’t talk much,” Muskat says. “When we feel [the music] there’s no need for talking; we just do what complements the music, leaving a lot of space for each other. I may start a fill and he will finish it without thinking about it.
“When you have two people playing the same instrument without bringing ego into it, the four hands start to move as one. For the live situation, we learn how to play the tracks we made in the studio. Then we divide the beats and patterns between his drum kit and mine. Sometimes, we’ll have complex patterns that we have to learn [how to re-create]. Playing live, the sections evolve and change, although it’s often best to just stay with a simple pattern that moves people.”