Balkan Beat Box: The gypsy pioneers play live in South Africa

The local musical phenomenon that is Balkanology has its finest moment yet when they present international co-founders of this unique, world-spanning sound: Balkan Beat Box.

Balkan Beat Box: The gypsy pioneers play live in South Africa

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 15 -16 January 2011.

When ‘The Good Weekend’ premiered the first Balkanology event, back in June 2006, it was on faith. Here was a madcap plan for a gypsy-themed party featuring DJs playing music with Eastern European origins and electronic beats and live bands playing brass-, accordion- and string-powered music with touches of Jewish klezmer and Yugoslav and Romanian folksongs – and a venue decorated with washing lines, live chickens and pigs, and hay-bales. Partly, we had a sense that the ethos glimpsed in the films of Emir Kusturica would resonate with a South African audience that is, arguably, somewhat gypsy in our outlook on partying, if not on life. Partly, it was because we’d heard the music of bands like Balkan Beat Box, Gogol Bordello, Kusturica’s own No Smoking Orchestra and DJs like Shantel and, so, knew the infectious power of that marching beat on a dancefloor, no matter how far away from the New York, Mediterranean and Balkan regions that birthed the sounds. Now after musical gems like Boom Pam and DJ Dunkelbunt have featured at Balkanology parties, one of the founder bands of this global émigré music phenomenon is coming to play on our shores: Balkan Beat Box are finally here, in the multi-culti, blue-eyed black boy flesh.

Balkan Beat Box was formed by saxophone player and producer Ori Kaplan and drummer, programmer and producer Tamir Muskat in New York, after the pair met while playing in that city’s Gogol Bordello ensemble. Lyricist and frontman Tomer Yosef completes the core Balkan Beat Box trio who have impressed crowds in venues as diverse as their originating city, New York, their new base in Tel Aviv and at festivals ranging from America’s Bonaroo and Germany’s Roskilde to Switzerland’s Paleo and Britain’s legendary Glastonbury. The touring band is complemented by Eyal Talmudi (saxophone), Ben Hendler (bass) and Ron Bunker (guitar) – additional brass and strings creating a live show that is lauded as much for its energy and pace as for the band’s unique combination of their regional influences with raga, dance-hall, hip hop, Balkan horns, Arab, Bulgarian and other guest singers, Greek guitars and more. It is a cornucopia of sounds with a global DNA of far-flung influences and inspirations – and a proven track-record on dance-floors across the world.

“It’s very hard to pigeon-hole the music of Balkan Beat Box into any easily digestible kind of term,” says the band’s co-founder Ori Kaplan by telephone from a balcony overlooking Tel Aviv. “We are three guys who emigrated to New York and are originally from Israel, and conscious of the region we come from, with its problems and its specific musical influences, and then found ourselves surrounded by the immigrant urban music of a new city. Some people call Balkan Beat Box a hybrid and I guess it is a kind of hybrid, but one that is very specific to the sounds that made it. In the back of our minds is music like hip hop, Arabic, Balkan… one of us has Romanian roots… there is a Mediterranean influence… there is punk, reggae, the dub soundsystems… There was a golden age of all of this immigrants gathering in new clubs in downtown New York, looking for their own culture and expression and sound. After we had worked and played in rock bands or in a jazz career, then it all finally clicked: three people sitting together and thinking, ‘What can we give to this community that they will enjoy and we will love?'”

Kaplan met his Balkan Beat Box cohort Tamir Muskat when they were both playing with Gogol Bordello, a frenetic explosion of genre-busting gypsy punk responsible for classics like “Gypsy Part of Town” and “Supertheory of Supereverything”, and who warrant an article on their own (search for the cunningly named J.U.F. (Jewish-Ukrainishe-Freundschaft), a collaboration between Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello). “It started with Tamir on electronics and me on melodies and then it evolved as Tamir and I kept pumping our DJ sets,” explains Kaplan, noting that he and Muskat are both DJ and producers as well as live performers. “It became this thing where we realised that we had to keep the sound together, and we kept working at it. The music is very different to Gogol Bordello, but we were definitely inspired by the fact that they had the guts. They had the balls to say, ‘Here is something for you people,’ and the energy to create it on stage. There was a whole movement of new localism where everything was embraced and everything was allowed, bringing people together. We were all there, immigrants: Turkish, Greek, Israeli, Arabic, Russian, Spanish, Latin-American… There was something we all felt and it was given a voice.”

With all of these musical influences, and their origins in the multi-culturalism of an immigrant urban society, Balkan Beat Box still conspires to have a very clear musical identity and a recognisable sound. “We are all madly in love with all these kinds of music: gypsy, klezmer, Egyptian, flamenco… so many things,” says Kaplan. “But we don’t think about the labels; we are just in our little B.B.B. space and there is definitely no other band in any of these places – Israel, Bulgaria, Egypt, wherever – that sounds like our sound, which somehow also has a strong New York feel. It’s all internalised through the years and the ears. It has modern and traditional influences, but it’s a matter of our attraction when we lay down a line – a melodic line of a rhythmic line – we always try to relate to that part of us which is extreme and primitive but, of course, we hope it has the finesse that comes because we are all producers. We are modernists, and we all know how to filter ourselves and then we will hear a combination and know that this is the B.B.B. sound. We are very excited to finally be coming to South Africa to present it. It is something we have been looking forward to for a long time and there are a lot of people we want to meet and music we want to hear. So, finally the tour: it is here and it is happening!”

Balkanology presents Balkan Beat Box with Nomadic Orkestar and DJ Toby2shoes on Friday 21 January (Harrington Street parking lot, (opposite Dias Tavern, adjacent to Charly’s Bakery and down from Assembly and Chevelle) and with DJs Deadpi9 and Toby2shoes on 22 January in Johannesburg (The Mills parking lot, 66 Carr Street, Newtown). Gates open 9pm, tickets are R180 pre-sale from or outlets (SKA at 161 Long St, 17 Main Rd, Kalk Bay, 105 Lower Main Rd, Observatory; Truth Coffee Cult, 1 Somerset Road, Green Point; and Gypsy in Hout Bay) and R200 at the door.

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 15 -16 January 2011. Find out more on