Is Balkan Beat Box the Best Band in Israel?

Think of Brazilian batucada, the idea of a group of musicians who play together with surpassing joy and equally impressive coordination.

Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev

If anyone still had doubts about Balkan Beat Box – it proved that it’s the best musical group in Israel in its show earlier this month at Zappa Herzliya. Each musician deserves individual praise, and all of them together so much more, for putting on one of the greatest concerts seen in these parts of late.

Band founder Tamir Muskat is a fantastic percussionist. Most of BBB’s songs are launched with a groove he plays on his own, and that rhythm alone, without all the elements that join in afterward, contains more musical content than the vast majority of the songs heard on Israel’s radio stations.

What Muskat does for rhythm, Ori Kaplan does for melody. At Zappa Herzliya, because of the staid (relatively speaking) character of the concert, he played not only his regular alto sax, which specializes in tunes of the Balkan variety, but also a huge baritone sax, which pads the music with low, fleshy sounds and lends it a soul-music quality that’s not usually present in BBB.

The three singer-sisters of the A-wa band sing in marvelous vocal interplay. Not a regular part of BBB, they inject terrific female Yemenite ululations into the band’s music. Their solo section, from a soon-to-be-released album, is almost bewitchingly gorgeous.

As for Tomer Yosef, on a so-so evening he is an excellent performer, but that night in Herzliya he was at his best. A band like BBB, whose menu features reggae prominently, needs a bassist of the highest order. His name is Itamar Ziegler. Another guest, keyboard artist Tom Darom, deserves praise for her gentle contributions and for refraining completely from laying dreary synth pads on us. Rounding off the group is Ron Bunker, whose electric guitar speaks fluent, articulate Middle Eastern. Occasionally he swaps it for a bouzouki and brings a little Greek into the mix.

Nothing minimal about it

What do all the separate elements sound like together? Think of Brazilian batucada, about the idea of a group of musicians, with the emphasis on rhythm people, who play together with surpassing joy and equally impressive coordination. Now imagine what this kind of rhythm commando would sound like in Israel. That’s what we got in the show that opened, with perfect fanfare, the new BBB tour, titled “Minimal.”

They’ve called it that because, in contrast to the band’s usual broad use of an electronic beat, this time it’s all being done live, with the emphasis on acoustic instruments, or so at least we were promised in a press release. And also because the music is being played for a seated audience, in contrast to the band’s usual shows, which are stand-up affairs. In practice, the difference between the show in Herzliya and the regular shows wasn’t all that dramatic. “Who called it ‘minimal’?” Tamir Muskat asked – and rightly so.

But even though there was no great difference, there was nevertheless some innovation in the situation. In fact, maybe that’s what caused the band’s members to be at their best, maybe even close to their peak. Their Middle Eastern batucada, powered by Muskat, generated a trenchant yet airy tumult of rolling, relentless rhythm. It was an extraordinary pleasure to let that thrillingly sweet music wash over you.

Yosef, Muskat and Kaplan conceived the sound and the approach of BBB at the beginning of the last decade and were able to gain a foothold in the American and European market in the suspicious period following the September 11, 2001 attacks. They managed that feat thanks to their talent and initiative, but also because they became part of a larger movement of migrant bands (or bands with a migrant consciousness) that injected elements of popular music, and especially the joy of popular music, into the world of corporate pop. Those bands were detained for questioning at American airports, as a BBB song takes pleasure in relating, but the “enemies” were received as heroes on the stages of the major festivals.

The irony is that precisely in Israel BBB was received with mixed feelings. The public, for its part, flocks to the band’s shows, making it one of the only new Israeli bands capable of filling a huge hangar. But critics and other taste-setters seem less enthusiastic. They tend to treat the band as though its only strength lies in the pelvis area – a band that can get people jumping happily, but no more.
Contemporary Israeli music doesn’t provide all that many reasons for feeling proud. The Balkan Beat Box gave us one such reason at Zappa Herzliya. Don’t miss their next show.

Balkan Beat Box plays at Goldstar Zappa, Tel Aviv on Friday at 13.45 and 20.45.

Balkan Beat Box.Credit: Billy Levy