Balkan Beat Box brings brash style to the masses

Balkan Beat Box sax man Ori Kaplan says his band has a rule of thumb when it comes to songwriting. Better make that a rule of toe.

“It needs to speak to the feet,” he says of their music. “That’s the first prerogative: from the feet to the head. When you dance, you’re happy.”

Kaplan and his Balkan Beat Box band mates should encounter around 20,000 happy pairs of feet when they perform on the main stage at 3 p.m.

Ever since their 2003 debut album, the trio — Kaplan, along with singer Tomer Yosef and drummer/programmer Tamir Muskat — has been one of the most embraced Israeli bands worldwide, in part because they sing in English and they don’t sound like any other Israeli band.

In fact, with their brash blend of electronica, funk and Gypsy punk, they don’t much sound like anyone else, period.

When it comes to the band’s fifth and latest album, “Give,” and its cacophony of samples, scratches and synthesizer-driven rhythms, the beat is definitely on. But Kaplan hopes BBB fans will take the music a step further.

Contrasted with the upbeat spirit, the subject matter on “Give” is serious stuff. Money, greed, power, violence and oppression all appear and reappear like dark threads in an otherwise bright musical weave.

Wisps of lyrics (“Everybody wants to be king of the world/Everybody wants to turn dust into gold”) become recurring motifs and rallying cries.

“There is stuff that pisses us off,” Kaplan says from his home in Vienna, “especially with the climate of last year’s protests and revolutions. It was in the air.” These uprisings include not only the Occupy movement in the United States and the revolutions in the Arab world, but the massive demonstrations in Israel last summer protesting the glaring inequities in Israeli society.

The members of Balkan Beat Box were there, and some of that citizen-fueled anger rubbed off on the trio as they wrote and recorded their new album.

Tamir Muskat (from left), Tomer Yosef and Ori Kaplan of Balkan Beat Box photo/courtesy of the fillmore

“We always attempted to create our own aesthetic,” Kaplan adds. ”We see ourselves as a hip, global sound system, as art pop. There are many things that are part of what this project is.”

In one new BBB song, “Enemy in Economy,” art imitates life. It retells the true story of wild-eyed, dark-skinned band member Tomer Yosef fiddling with his new digital camera on a commuter flight to Santa Rosa two years ago, and arousing suspicions that he might be a terrorist.

Instead of the usual “buh-byes” from the flight crew, Yosef was hauled off by federal agents. “There were a few hours of interrogation,” Kaplan recalls. “It was racial profiling, but it leant itself to song.”

Though all three members are Israeli, Balkan Beat Box formed in New York City and was based there for years. It allowed the band to branch out into a more global act. Moreover, it opened the door to collaborations with musicians from Iran, Syria and other no-fly zones for Israelis.

“We met many great musicians,” Kaplan says. “There is a community of open-minded musicians that really think beyond borders. There’s also a curiosity.”

The band is more far-flung now, with Kaplan having relocated to Vienna to be closer to his Croatian wife’s family.

Yet the band remains Israeli to its core. And now, their countrymen and women are catching up to the BBB vibe.

“Israelis play our songs on the radio there,” says Kaplan. “They know we’re out there spreading our work. We crossed over a bit, but we are Israelis.”

Balkan Beat Box
plays 3 p.m. on the main stage

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.