With the recent release of their fourth album, Give, Balkan Beat Box offers new sounds and a heavier electronic focus than in previous albums, while still fused with their Middle Eastern roots and musical influences from around the world.
Balkan Beat Box first formed in 2004 with drummer/programmer Tamir Muskat (Firewater) and saxophone player Ori Kaplan (Gogol Bordello) joining forces. In 2005, they broke out to the New York City underground scene with hits like “Bulgarian Chicks” from their self-titled debut album. Later that year, percussionist and charismatic frontman Tomer Yosef joined the band. Seven years later, with the three core band members still in place, Balkan Beat Box continues to create unique albums and make crowds go wild with their infamous live shows.
The Rumpus sat down with Ori Kaplan before a recent show in New York City to talk about their entertaining live shows, Ori’s unique approach to playing the saxophone, and what fans can expect from the new album.
The Rumpus: Why the name Balkan Beat Box?
Ori Kaplan: When we started it was just Tamir, myself, a computer, and a saxophone. We were doing all kinds of experimental stuff. Our first track was “Bulgarian Chicks,” which was with Vlada Tomova, and we were taking Bulgarian vocals and putting it into a drum machine (a beat box). Balkan is the folk attitude and Beat Box is the contemporary modern attitude. It’s a juxtaposition. It really made sense then, and still does now.
Rumpus: BBB’s music has been labeled as gypsy punk, world, political, among many others. How would you describe the music of Balkan Beat Box?
Kaplan: I don’t. I really try hard not to. The three of us get in the studio, stuff comes out, and we know if it fits the BBB aesthetic or not, and that aesthetic is evolving as well, changing. We like to kick it in the face every now and then.
Rumpus: Is that freeing for you in the creative process, to not feel pigeonholed to a certain genre?
Kaplan: Very much. Sometimes the beats and the melodies are so varied that I just don’t know how we’re going to put the album together. But at the end it makes sense because the album builds around the dynamic of Tomer, Tamir, and myself.
Rumpus: With songs like “War Again” (from Blue Eyed Black Boy) and “Political Fuck” from your new album Give, people might get the impression that you’re a political band. How would you respond to that?
Kaplan: We’re not a political band, but it’s inevitable that we will talk about things that we care about. I think it comes naturally with the clash of cultures; we have Jews and Arabs together on stage. All three of us were not born in New York, but most of our adult life has been spent in New York, so we’re kind of New Yorker/Israelis that take a step backward to the past, and you just can’t ignore the fact that the people that make the music are at war sometimes.
Rumpus: For Blue Eyed Black Boy, you used all natural drum beats without any processors or looping to begin the recording process. Did you put any similar restrictions on yourselves for the new album? How is Give different from previous albums?
Kaplan: Every album is a different process. With Give, we started with just a couple of beats. We felt like we needed to break away from the last album. This is our fourth studio album, and we felt like we should really have the freedom to do something different. This album breaks some traditional world music barriers. It definitely has much more of a dance-hall-global-underground influence. It’s electronic heavy; we used lots of synthesizers, played with all kind of electronic toys, used old analog sounds, and did lots of experiments with an old Otari half-inch reel to reel, to guide the beats.
Rumpus: Is the live show going to be tweaked to accommodate the new elements of Give?
Kaplan: Yes, we’re working on a new show. We’ll add electronics, not just the computer, but computer and synthesizer or other electronic solutions to the deep bass and faster BPMs (beats per minute).
Rumpus: Balkan Beat Box is known for their high-energy live shows. Every show is a new experience, but it always feels like there’s an even exchange between the band and the crowd? Can you talk about that?
Kaplan: I think the crowd feels like they’re seeing a show well played, by real musicians, with real instruments, really happening on stage, and they feel that energy. And we all feed off the crowd. There’s very much a crowd participation feel to our shows. I think the crowd feels that, as well.
Rumpus: When I heard what you were doing musically with the saxophone, I completely fell in love with it because it was in your face, hard hitting, and explosive. Can you talk about how you’ve come to play the saxophone in this way?
Kaplan: Saxophone is kind of hard-hitting. In Macedonia and Balkan countries you hear how saxophone is like a punk instrument there, it’s got this punch, so that was one influence. I think my sound is a combination of my favorite saxophone players, like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, mixed with punk, gypsy, klezmer, folk, and funk. It’s kind of a weird mix, but I’ve always wanted the saxophone to be as effective as punk music because that’s the kind of music I grew up on. It was hard to find the direction because traditionally the saxophone is a smooth instrument, but I guess it’s my nature to go with hard lines.
Rumpus: Balkan Beat Box has a tradition of bringing audience members onto the stage to dance to “Bulgarian Chicks.” When did this tradition start?
Kaplan: We’ve always brought audiences on stage. “Bulgarian Chicks” is one of our first songs, and we usually don’t have Vlada Tomova [who’s featured on “Bulgarian Chicks”] touring with us, so we thought we’d make something out of it and bring people up to dance. It’s more like the DJ party of the show.