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Balkan Beat Box: Ori Kaplan & Tamir Muskat im Interview

Balkan Beat Box ist eine Weltmusikgruppe, die von Ori Kaplan, Tamir Muskat und Tomer Yosef gegründet wurde. Ori Kaplan und Tamir Muskat sind beide in Israel aufgewachsen, trafen sich jedoch erstmals in Brooklyn. Beide sind mit Musik groß geworden. Kaplan war ein Klezmerklarinettist und spielte unter anderem bei Gogol Bordello, während Muskat Schlagzeuger einer Punkband gewesen ist…

Die beiden entwickelten einen sehr eigenen Stil, indem sie die musikalischen Klänge von jüdischem Klezmer, Klängen des Mittelmeer- und Balkanraums mit Hiphop- und Dancehallbeats kombinierten. Die Gruppe ist stark beeinflusst von jamaikanischem Dub, wobei sich auch andere Einflüsse in ihrer musikalischen Mischform befinden.

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Ori Kaplan & Tamir Muskat answering to questions

Ori Kaplan

I am Ori Kaplan. I play saxophones. Tamir Muskat plays, he’s the drummer, and programmer, beat programmer, producer. When I was a kid, I played clarinet, when I was eleven years old in Jaffa. I had some great teachers, but mostly I had a passion for Klezmer music. That’s how I started, folk music, improvisational music, transcribing tapes of Klezmer clarinettists. Of course later on, a couple of years later, I neglected that. I moved to rock, popular Western music, and joined a band. I was doing industrial sampler band, called DXM. Then I fell in love with jazz, learning how to improvise – the Blues tradition. I did that and moved to New York and kept studying with the masters, accomplishing in jazz. But growing up in Israel, you grow up in the backdrop of a lot of Arabic music, Palestinian music, or just Jewish Sephardic music that can be from Iraq, from Yemen, North Africa, Arabia. It’s all over the place. The dial on the radio was 90% Arabic music. Every day the one TV channel had the same TV band playing half an hour of uninterrupted Arabic music, which you hear every day basically while you had dinner. So there’re so many influences, coming from my home, the Russian, and Eastern European tradition. My parents’ home, which is more Belarusian and Polish. For Tamir, his mother is Romanian. We have a connection to that. Yet we have another connection to the Middle East and all the music and all the immigrants. It’s a big mess. It’s a big mesh box of influences. Later on I established bands in New York, jazz bands, free jazz. I made a few records on the Knitting Factory label in New York. I joined the band Firewater, which I was playing more kind of a Klez sax, punk rock Klex type of music. It was the same style I was playing later, when I was playing with Gogol Bordello. We started touring. I was with that band for three years. I had my own percussion ensemble. And with Tamir, we established another great band called Shot’nez. With a guitar player, kind of slide, blues, more punk rock. Itamar Ziegler, from the Balkan Beat Box, on bass. So this is our main other thing that both me and Tamir are involved with.

Tamir Muskat

My name is Tamir Muskat. I lived in New York City for about 10 years, was growing up in Israel for about 20, to a family of musicians. I grew up on traditional music, from African to Romanian. My mom is from Romania. My father was a classical musician, playing church organ. So between jazz, old school 50s, 40s jazz, to African music, and some Romanian music, that would be the influences growing up. It all turned up to be punk rock at some point. Then moving to New York, being involved in bands like Big Lazy, which is an instrumental trio, doing Film Noir music, then Firewater, which is a circus kind of rock band. And a project with Gogol Bordello called J.U.F. – Gogol Bordello vs. Tamir Muskat. There were plenty of other records as a producer, to be involved musically, artistically, and conceptually. All that evolved to be the Balkan Beat Box. About two years ago, Ori Kaplan and myself started the beautiful project, and that’s what we’re doing right now.

You have been brought up in Israel and then moved to New York, why?

Ori Kaplan Just better opportunities, to develop as a musician. There were limited opportunities in the situation, economically and politically. Something closes in on you. When you grow up in Tel Aviv with your eyes to the world, to the West, to the East. My teacher told me if I want to live up to my full potential as a musician, I should study with master improvisers. That’s why I moved to New York.

Tamir Muskat The reason for my move to New York would be just the lack of artistic inspiration in Israel. It’s a very small country. At the time of moving out of there, it was definitely only a mainstream scene. If you want to do anything that is out of the center, a little more special and unique, you had no room to do that. So it was just a very natural thing. I was craving for it since I was 10 years old. Just waiting for the moment I can leave and make music in a place that have opportunities, and space for unique music without it being necessarily mainstream and charting the pop charts.

How did the idea of the Balkan Beat Box project develop?

Ori Kaplan Both Tamir and I were djing around the world, doing different projects. Being involved in Gogol Bordello as I was and djing music that was a lot of this kind of fusion between contemporary dance beats and folk music really. Sort of contemporary folk from all around. We were both involved in this project called J.U.F. – Jewish Ukrainian Freundschaft. It was Tamir and myself, and Eugene and Oren from Gogol Bordello. So we were already doing that kind of stuff and doing it ourselves. It started a natural need for new music to spin as DJs. We wanted to make the ultimate record of our favourite roots music of our own to apply to dance music. So we talked about it, started in the studio just having fun with it. We’re all very much acoustic instrumentalists, as well as studio musicians. So it was really natural and very special, this combination of instrumental folk and technology is kind of rare in New York. But we do have the New York core, edge, those influences.

Tamir Muskat Ori Kaplan and I were half of the J.U.F. project that included Gogol Bordello. It just kind of started to get that kind of tone of electronic beats with some Mediterranean, Balkan music. It seems like after the J.U.F. record was released, Ori and I wanted to take this to another level, to different places, work with different singers from all around the world. So that’s how the record, the album came to life. The show started from a long trip to Spain with a lady called Alma Harel and myself. We were talking and coming to these ideas of collaborating with artists and creating a three-dimensional show that involves video art, and three stages. So artists that are part of the Balkan Beat Box show are coming in and out of the show from different spots of the room and keep surprising the audience with their locations and definitely their amazing talents. All these elements together, it started like that and evolved to be so many other things.

How did you select the music, the flavours for this album?

Ori Kaplan I think it was really natural. It was just the music we loved. We loved music from North Africa, around the rim of our home. From Greece to North Africa, to Algeria. It’s kind of the music that was in the back of our heads. Some of it closer, some of it more of an adventure for us. We were never trying to make Chinese music; it’s not like some international beat box. It’s very much close to where we’re from, sounds that in our history. It’s always an intuitive effort. The results and everything was very spontaneous and intuitive. We didn’t need to do much research; it was just very natural influences. By that I mean we did a lifetime of research to get to where we are on our instruments, and musical research. But when we came to this record, we came to it with ease, with what we already know, what’s in our history, our background. The attempt was to create this new authentic breed, new music from the point where we had in our lives.

Tamir Muskat That was a very natural thing to do, that was probably the easiest part of making this record. We were working with our favourite musicians from all around the world. The flavour of the album was sitting up there in the air very clear to both of us. There was no question what kind of flavours we were going to use. It was very obvious what kind of beats we were using. When I was sitting on the computer, it was very obvious to know what kind of horn lines we’re using when Ori’s behind the saxophone. So these things are just in our blood. There was no searching. It was just years of evolution into what you hear on this record. It was a very natural thing for us to do, including choosing who’s in it, what tracks are working, and what’s not. Probably I would say 90% of what we went for got into the record. The rest would be released on some crazy remixes or something.

How near are the traditions you’re playing with to you?

Tamir Muskat These traditions are extremely near to us. This is where we grew up. Place like Israel is a place that contains people from all over the world, from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. These people brought amazing food with them, and fantastic music. These things are just kept alive for years and years. Growing up in Israel you walk in the market you hear music from all around the world. You cross the street and you hear Madonna. For me, growing up in the 80s it was this amazing clash between traditional folk music that is constantly around, when you open the TV, when you open the radio, every where you go. And pop music from the radio. I would say this is the essence of Balkan Beat Box, that clash. It’s us growing up in the 80s, getting connected to punk rock, and some pop music and all kinds of things, jazz. It’s in our blood, having this music all over. Other than that, half of my family came from Romania, half from Poland. It was very natural going to my grandmother to listen to Romanian music. It was just there. It wasn’t a big deal. It was part of the day-by-day life. At some point after resisting all the roots, going to punk rock, playing all kind of weird avant music. The two got connected again. I would say about 6 or 7 years ago, maybe 10 years ago, starting with the band Izabo that was playing Oum Koltoum influenced riffs from Egypt with hard-core rock. So these collaborations and mixtures and fusion approach was for Ori and I all along.

How do you use the studio technology?

Ori Kaplan There was a very interesting way of working on this album where we had sometimes an artist, a vocalist come, and just play to a click, just give us very raw talent. We would dress up with technology, computer, with the beats Tamir was programming, and sitting and really listening to it, dressing a whole composition around it, relating to it. In a way, that would never come in a natural process of a band in a studio. We did take our time to edit. This synthesis came from upside down sometimes. But in the end, when you hear this music played live, it really keeps the organic feel as well.

Tamir Muskat This is my favourite question. The studio for me after all these years is basically an instrument. We work at Vibromonk Records. It’s a place I own for about 8 years now. It’s a fantastic environment to create. Ori and I recorded many records there. So the environment is very familiar to us. It’s like knowing your instrument very well. You go to places you don’t go usually with a new instrument. Both have their own thing. But there’s something to this place. We’ve been collecting toys in there for so many years and all kinds of weird interesting instruments. The approach for this record was so different on every song. Some of the song started with us writing melodies to a certain cool beat I put in, and then developing the whole harmony change later on. Some of the stuff started completely with a beat and some vocal hook by Victoria Hanna, coming in doing only vocals on one beat. And the whole thing evolved after. Some tracks we got from Israel, from a Moroccan artist, after we sent him a beat, and he wrote some stuff to it. We come back and change and back and forth. But all so fluid and natural. It was really amazing working like that. No rules. No one way of doing things. Whatever clicks for us clicks. If the process was A or B or however, we know when it’s clicking. When it does, it doesn’t really matter how it came there. It came there sometimes in mysterious ways, sometimes with a lot of hard work. But we know when it’s there. We work with a lot of analogue equipment, combined with computer-oriented software. Getting into the technical aspect of things, I like to work with computer. The possibilities are fantastic. But I always work with old school Lee Scratch Perry style equipment. I have a MCI old school 70s board, tons of telephone pre-amps. Everything goes through very old vintage equipment. A lot of plate reverbs and spring reverbs, distortions. In this case we used a lot of computer, but everything again goes through vintage old, old school analogue board, mixed up in an old school way, combined with the computer. So it’s this kind of best of both worlds. It’s a fantastic way of working for us. We love it very much.

Balkan Beat Box is the brainchild of both of you, but it seems to me that it cannot live without the input of your guest musicians. Tell us about it.

Ori Kaplan Well this was kind of the idea of the project in a way, to have the opportunity to play with great musicians, great master musicians, and vocalists, instrumentalists that we meet along the way. It’s kind of a journey project in its nature. It’s kind of a hospitality kind of body. So this is what we wanted and intended, although the touring band can be six to seven people that keep the core of the music. We always have two vocalists. It’s definitely a good representation of the music in the CD. We always have more people to give the flavour and the feeling of the circus, which we are in a sense – a big circus show with lots of guests, when we can do it. The Balkan Beat Box is a modular type of band with Tamir Muskat and myself, with our core band, and then another core, another circle around us, that people we know from around places, different continents, different guests, whenever we are in different regions. This is an essential part of how we work.

Tamir Muskat The Balkan Beat Box depends on a group of people. We have a basic crew, core band, of seven people. A lot of our European tours are made up of seven people. We throw out a party that feels like thirty on stage. We basically use our best favourite musicians like Itamar Zielger and Tomer Yosef and Uri Kinrot, Eyal Talmudi, Peter Hess, Dana Leong. These are fantastic musicians. They all have energy that is really out of this world. They’re really special people. Their energy on stage is something else. This is what it is now. Some of our shows contain 15-20 people. We work with so many guests and as many people on stage as possible we’ll be happier, as many guests we have makes us just more and more into it and happier. But at the same time, the band can go with five or six people to France and get 10,000 people on their feet like crazy in 10 minutes. So we depend on whomever we want to depend on. It can survive anyway we want it to survive.

What can one expect when seeing a Balkan Beat Box live show?

Tamir Muskat The Balkan Beat Box’s live show can be watched and experienced in a few ways. You can really dance your ass off. That’s really what we’re about. We’re there to make people extremely happy and energetic. Our show is very energetic and upbeat through 99% of it. Usually it becomes a really insane dance party. But at the same time it’s not all about that. There’s a lot of music written. There are a lot of melodies. There’s a lot of thinking put into what we do. You can just sit on the side and watch and listen and close your eyes and just experience a whole mixture of cultures, and sounds, and flavors, and amazing energy. It’s definitely very dance oriented, but it’s got much more to it to offer to someone who’s not necessarily that interested in dancing. So you can experience this show in many ways I would say.

What is coming next for you in the coming year?

Ori Kaplan We are going to be touring, touring and touring! In the US and in Europe, and talks about new territories like Japan and Brazil. Some big shows, we will do a double bill with Taraf de Haidouks in France in a few months, other festivals. We’re looking forward to coming and playing a lot in Europe, a lot more in the US and just keep exploring different territories.

Tamir Muskat Hopefully a lot of tours, bigger shows, as big as possible. Our dream, I hope by the end of the year or the year after we will be out there with a circus tent, travelling the world with about 20 people on stage. Other than that, we have ideas for about five more records. Hopefully things will do enough in our record labels to help us put these ideas out there. That would be a nice plan for the next year. I would be happy if we will end up in a circus tent with one more record.

What is your connection to the Balkans? Why do you use the name Balkan Beat Box? And what does it stand for?

Ori Kaplan It’s sort of an inspiration.  We did start remixing gypsy bands and Bulgarian singers when we did our first tracks and when we first named ourselves. That inspiration is still there. There’s definitely a strong emphasis as well on the Middle East and the Mediterranean Rim, which veers away from the Balkans. That explains part of the name.

Tamir Muskat Our connection to the Balkans, blood wise, is both of our families came from Eastern Europe, basically escaping from Eastern Europe after the beginning of the Second World War. The beginning of our Balkan Beat Box experience was falling in love with bands like Taraf de Haidouks, Fanfare Ciocarlia, so many others. That just started the whole thing for us. It was really the beginning of falling in love with this music. And then incorporated into what we do and mixing it with all this beautiful Mediterranean music we grew up on, from Turkey to Greece to Egypt, Morocco, and tons of other places. That would be part of why we use the name. The other part is just so much love to our music, kind of a nonsense approach, not to take it too serious. We are not only necessarily dealing with Balkan music. We are and we will deal with music from all around the world. So don’t take it too serious there.

Is there any connection between music from the Middle East and Eastern Europe? Do you create such a connection?

Ori Kaplan Definitely I think this is what we do, although it does go through the filter of New York, after more than a decade in New York. Take all that and put it through the New York filter and this is what you get, Balkan Beat Box. Definitely there are many immigrants from Eastern Europe who came to Tel Aviv. We grew up with a big melting pot of Moroccans, Iraqis, Eastern European Russians, Bulgarians, and Romanians. This all could be very confusing, choosing from so many different influences. But this is how you grow up. This is what you take in. As a young musician, obviously you are more attuned to music, to different kinds of music around you if you have good ears, interest, and curiosity. All that with the New York filter and this is where we are.

Tamir Muskat There is definitely a connection. We would like to call it the Mediterranean Rim, that’s where it can start from Greece and Turkey and end up in the south of France, Spain. There’s definitely a connection and we’re definitely helping this connection with what we do. Again, there is not too much explanation for this. It just feels like home for us to hear stuff that comes from the Mediterranean areas. It just feels like home. I don’t know how to explain it otherwise. I see a huge connection. I feel it in the food when I eat in the South of Spain, and when I eat in Israel. I feel it in the spirit of the people. I feel it so much in the climate. I feel it in so many things. That’s what creates music, the combination of climate and food. So there is a huge connection.

Is there a new Jewish music movement? Can we speak about a new (Jewish) wave in pop culture? How do you see groups like OI VA VOI or a label like JDub?

Ori Kaplan There could be such a thing. We’re not consciously doing it, or trying to do it that way. We’re more Israelis. I think that sort of new Jewish music can come from the US. There’s a global awareness of roots, wherever they are, and that you can notice all around the world. There’s Gypsy music revival, Klezmer revival, any sort of music today. Maybe it’s because of the corporate globalization process that’s taking over the world. George Bush! People say we don’t want this. We want to go back to our own and discover where we came from, what’s authentic and good. Not superficial and commercial. So maybe the revival of Jewish is part of that. Definitely the label JDub and other bands around us, tend to wink at that direction. They are searching for the roots, whether they are Jewish or some non Jews who’d like to explore that. For us, it’s more coming from the Middle East, Israel, and that’s maybe the connection with the Jewish background. We let it go through the huge filter of everything else. So in that way we are connected to it, but this is not some guiding force.

Tamir Muskat There is a new movement. I don’t want our music to belong to any religion. I don’t think it does. We are Jewish. We didn’t necessarily choose to be. It doesn’t matter. For me, personally, if someone is Jewish, Buddhist, or whatever, I don’t think it makes any difference. If for someone it does, and people looking for some kind of connection to what we do to the Jewish religion, there is definitely a movement. In the US we are signed to a label called JDub that deals with a certain new approach for Jewish music. You can say Klezmer. There is a movement. Personally, I’m not interested in it, not in the movement. Some people think we are part of the movement. I’m not interested in the connection of religion to what we do. I don’t see anything really in it.

New York September 30, 2005.

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