Balkan Beat Box performs music with a message


Group of Israeli ex-pats at 9:30 Club
Ori Kaplan says the name of his group — Balkan Beat Box — is a meeting between the Old World and technology.
by Lisa Traiger
Arts Correspondent

When the New York-based band Balkan Beat Box, founded by a trio of Israeli ex-patriot musicians, returns to Washington for a one-night stand Tuesday, March 19 at the 9:30 Club, they’ll bring their eclectic musical style: a mashup of Eastern European roots music with African and Mediterranean rhythms, a driving electronica base and a punk rock political sensibility. And as important as the music is, the political message, said Beat Box horn player Ori Kaplan last week from Tel Aviv, is what keeps them together and playing, and has since 2005.

Kaplan was in Israel joining his fellow band mates to work up some new songs in the recording studio. These days, he noted, the advances in equipment and technology allow the group to work anywhere – even in a bedroom, if necessary. He currently resides with his wife and two young children in Vienna, Austria, so, why not take a few mid-winter weeks to meet up in Tel Aviv, where the days are sunny and the beach close by?

Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Kaplan was introduced to music in elementary school with that standard educational tool, the recorder. At 11, he moved on to the clarinet, but dropped it three years later until 17, when he picked up the saxophone. Enamored of jazz, which has a thriving and vibrant presence in Israel, Kaplan by 20 was in New York, immersing himself in the rich, multicultural jazz scene there.

“But I definitely found more than jazz,” he said. “I was exposed to a lot of different stuff: downtown, experimental music, hip hop. I joined a few bands like Firewater and Gogol Bordello.”

Both bands fused and experimented across musical genres, bridging the worlds of Roma, African, klezmer, punk and more. And signing on with Gogol Bordello, a high-energy dance band that plays what it calls Gypsy punk cabaret, was like a nonstop roller-coaster ride sharing a car with a gang of crazy Russians. There Kaplan met fellow Israeli Tamir Muskat and through studio work and collaborative experimentation, the beginnings of Balkan Beat Box emerged.

Asked to describe the sound, Kaplan said: “The early mood, when we started infusing electronic music with whatever background we had, different ethnic music and different guests from the places like Morocco and Africa, we started this kind of immigrant, urban electronic mashup.” The name, Balkan Beat Box, he added, “is a metaphor in a way to the Old World – Eastern Europe. Beat box was a kind of computer world technology, so it’s the place where the Old World meets the technology. We call it modern folk.”

But beyond the irresistible and high-energy, danceable rhythms, BBB, one of the band’s monikers, has been dabbling in political content. “Give,” its 2012 album, became part of the soundtrack for the massive social protests in Israel that year, when hundreds of thousands filled city streets demanding abatements on housing, food prices and the cost of living in general. Like the Occupy movement in the United States, tent cities sprang up in Tel Aviv and cities across Israel. Kaplan was there.

“Definitely the album is far more outspoken about certain political and social issues,” said Kaplan, who is surprisingly soft-spoken in contrast to BBB’s high energy, frenzied stage shows. “Because we all had little babies at the time, we all got more pissed off about why things were stuck in one place and don’t change. It made us think more and this album is a bit edgier.” Songs like “Part of the Glory,” examine the economic disparities rife around the world, and “Money” is a cynical takedown of consumerism as a new religion. “Enemy in Economy” was written following a run-in Muskat had with a TSA airport security agent, and the song peels back the curtain on the issue of ethnic or racial profiling. “Political F$%@” is a bitter screed against establishment politics, perfect for the sentiments of the “Occupy” generation.

Kaplan is very excited about returning to the District to perform. Asked what he’d like to say to the leaders in Washington, if BBB could be heard in the halls of power, Kaplan became thoughtful: “What do I have to say to the people of power? That’s a big question.”

“Everybody was in euphoria globally when Obama was elected,” he continued. “I still think it’s a wonderful thing that he was [elected]. I just really hope that he can get out of the gridlock. … I hope he can finish the job. I think his intentions are good. I don’t think he’s misguided. … This guy has a serious brain. I think this guy would actually like Balkan Beat Box, if he had our CD.”

“Growing up I was listening to Bob Marley and John Lennon,” he added, “and it changed us, it changed a whole generation. Music can be really powerful. What would we do without it? Yes music can change minds. I do believe that.”

Balkan Beat Box will perform March 19, 7 p.m. 9:30 Club in the District. Tickets, $22., are available by calling 877-435-9849, emailing [email protected] or visiting

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