Cultures in harmony

Balkan Beat Box blends traditional, worldly, modern influences to craft its sound

September 14, 2006|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun Reporter

Moroccan, electronica, Klezmer, Egyptian, Romanian.

Balkan Beat Box has a long, abstract list of cultural and musical influences. You can hear it on the record or see it in the wild live show. The group's next concert is tonight at Fletcher's.

On the band's album, Klezmer horns pump and blare along with guitars, pounding drums, electronic samples and Middle Eastern melodies. It's more than a modern take on traditional musical styles, said band co-founder Tamir Muskat.

"I really think we're twisting the whole thing up right now," he said. "We're using the soulful part of what we grew up with, the melodies, the rhythms, you know. But as far as the sounds, it's a completely new sound, this kind of music."

Born in Israel, Muskat and musical partner Ori Kaplan moved to New York 12 and 15 years ago, respectively. Muskat said he thought coming to America would be a huge change, but after spending some time here, he noticed a major similarity: Both places are cultural mishmashes.

"New York City is almost the same -- everybody from somewhere, tons of immigrants, everybody has some weird accent, and you stop even asking why and where from, and it just becomes this one identity," Muskat said. "That's beautiful to see this coming alive in the city. It would be even more beautiful if it would come alive in the whole world."

Kaplan and Muskat played with the New York indie rock outfit Firewater, and Kaplan was also a member of gypsy funk band Gogol Bordello. A couple of years ago, the duo started working on the Balkan Beat Box's self-titled debut from their home base in Brooklyn. Much like making a hip-hop album, they put beats together for some tracks and then came up with melodies, Muskat said.

Other songs started with an a cappella track the two found and remixed. They also invited musicians and singers from around the globe to record with them.

"We wanted to get people together, get people [whose] governments are at war, in a studio and set up a strong tone, a possibility for peaceful relationships between these cultures through what we're doing, which is music," Muskat said.

Muskat and Kaplan completed the album in about a year and began playing in New York City with huge ensembles of 10 to 20 people. Audiences responded enthusiastically, and the band decided to get on the road. They're currently on their first headlining club tour with a lineup of six musicians, though Muskat wishes they could bring more along.

"I think we managed to keep a really nice, festive vibe on stage and six people making enough noise like 20 sometimes," he said. "But if it would be up to us, a lot of times we would travel with a big circus tent with 20 people."

The band's live shows have a raw, party energy, much like concerts with George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars or Ozomatli. Muskat mans the drums and cues samples from a laptop, and Kaplan plays horns. A good number of the people who see the band live are turned on to more traditional Klezmer and Middle Eastern music, Muskat said.

"It's just amazing to see when people discover it," Muskat said. "Sometimes it takes maybe a band like us to make this little bridge. Maybe the typical American person from the middle of the country wouldn't be exposed to this music unless it will come to them on more of a modern approach -- something that is more connected to what is going on with music these days."

Those who want to get a solid grasp on Balkan Beat Box's influences have three or four years of listening ahead of them, he said. But that's not a bad thing.

"If you fall into this sound, you have an amazing window open," he said.

Balkan Beat Box plays Fletcher's, 701 S. Bond St., tonight. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 and $15 for those younger than 21. Call 410-558-1889 or go to fletchersbar.com. To learn more about the band, visit balkanbeatbox.com.

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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