Culture & Conversation

Balkan Beat Box plays it political

Depending on what time you walked into The National on Saturday night, you may have thought you were at a Jewish wedding, a rap concert, a whirling dervish contest, or a war protest. Yes, the Balkan Beat Box was in Montreal, bringing their eclectic sound to an extremely enthusiastic crowd as part of the Festival International des Nuits d’Afrique.

Known and loved for their ability to seamlessly combine traditional music from Eastern Europe and the Middle East with the coolest electronic sounds, the best beats, and great lyrics, the BBB played a selection of tunes from their latest album, “Give,” as well as from earlier collections. And while the BBB aesthetic has always implied cooperation and cross-cultural fertilization – an implicit drive towards peace – their latest work is explicitly political.

According to frontman Tomer Yosef and drummer Tamir Muskat, whom I had the pleasure to chat with before the show, BBB had more to say on this album, released in 2012 when the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and other protest movements were underway around the globe. “Things started to bubble all around at the time we were recording, in the Middle East and in New York, people just started to wake up and speak. It bubbled in us too and it was time to just say things, to talk about these things.” The lyrics created the direction for the new album, which is definitely darker, edgier, a little more hardcore, and a lot more political than their earlier work.

The musical aesthetic followed suit: although the traditional sounds are still there — the klezmer sax solos and gypsy undercurrents — they are somewhat more submersed in the electronics and the darker aesthetic; the sound is more homogenized than on earlier albums, and often more minimalistic.

When I asked Tomer and Tamir if having children affected their creative process on this album (they all became fathers recently, including the third permanent band member Ori Kaplan), they laughed: “We were later getting to the studio in the morning! And we were all very, very tired so we were looking for something to wake us up, so the tempos are much faster.” But on a more serious note, Tamir said that contrary to what he thought — that having children would soften their sound — this album is instead much more direct: “all of a sudden you kind of feel more a sense of responsibility, you need to deal with things that might affect your children’s future.”

BBB did feature some of their hard-edged songs at the show, from Give (the album gets its name from graffiti the band found when looking for a video location — it was “the right name for the right album,” said Tomer) as well as from earlier albums. Tomer had the whole audience chanting “We don’t want to play in this game [of war] any more” in the middle of “Mexico City” (from Nu Med), and siren samples sounded throughout the night.

But mostly they were there for a good time, to get the audience dancing and clapping and smiling (don’t wear sandals to a BBB concert unless you’re going to jump as high as the guy beside you…), and in this they succeeded – the audience didn’t let them go, and they obliged with several encores, including one for all the ladies in the audience (“My Baby,” from Blue Eyed Black Boy, with its funky Eastern European metre).

Tamir told me that the three core members work with great musicians to augment the BBB, and he was right: the sax players — one of whom is Ori Kaplan — were tight, and the guitarist played some impressive solos. The bassist was likewise great. And Tomer and Tamir showed their percussion prowess throughout the night in addition to providing electronic sounds and singing.

A high energy, politically charged party that was definitely worth the price of admission.

Balkan Beat Box performed as part of the Festival International des Nuits d’Afrique. For more information and to consult the full programming visit the festival website.

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