Tamir Muskat: Balkan Beat Box

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.”

Tamir’s Creative Template

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.”

In The Giving Mood

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.

{pagebreak}

“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.”

Prelude To A Groove Future

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.”

Tamir Muskat

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)
E Bongos
F Timbales

Electronics
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 J├╝disch-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.

Beat-share Arrangement

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.”