Balkan Beat Box December 7th at 8:30 p.m. $18-$20. Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie Ave.; 866-468-3401.
Back in 2003, The O.C. ushered the concept of Chrismukkah into the mainstream. For lead character Seth, it meant combining the best of two major holidays—to wit, unlimited presents and foil-wrapped chocolate—and celebrating the pairing with an open mind and unbridled glee. Balkan Beat Box is miles away from The O.C.‘s white-bread California milieu, but there is a curious overlap between Seth’s feel-good multiculturalism and the band’s secular smorgasbord-meets-global dance party (which hits town on the fourth night of Hanukkah, no less).
The brainchild of Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat, two Israeli-born musicians turned Brooklynites who immigrated to the States in the early nineties, Balkan Beat Box blends klezmer brass with hip-hop, dub, funk, and folk (Gypsy, North African, Mediterranean), backed by electronic beats and a distinct global message: peace in the Middle East. “The politicians can’t deliver it as well as we can,” Kaplan says. “Our musical palette is part of our childhood. We grew up in the melting pot of the Middle East, and when that converged with the hard-core attitude of urban New York beats, it just clicked. We realized we could put our musical visions together with our politics.”
That’s not to say the band is religious. Like Seth’s pick-and-choose holiday sampler, Balkan Beat Box takes its inspiration, not its modus operandi, from the faiths it plumbs. “There is respect of the cultures, the heritage,” Kaplan says. “We derive a lot of our music from texts and prayer books, but it’s a slippery slope, religion. That’s not who we are. We are all about collaboration, understanding, openness.”
The band has released two albums to date, a self-titled record in 2005 and a follow-up, Nu-Med, in May of this year. Think world-music traditions piled back to back like time zones on an intercontinental redeye, add an infectious dance beat and disco handclaps, and you start to get the picture. Unmistakable in this sonic stew is the influence of Gogol Bordello, the New York-based Gypsy-punk collective whose legendary concerts burn longer than a Maccabee lamp, and with whom both Kaplan, as a saxophonist, and Muskat, as DJ and producer, have a history.
Balkan Beat Box has taken this gospel of the live show and amped it up a notch, creating a circuslike sweatfest in which an ever-changing lineup of guests—as likely to include an 80-year-old Yemenite vocalist as a rapping Iranian youth—join the core group of six or so musicians. (“Six is the magic number,” Kaplan says. “Six people can sustain two hours of constant dance music.”) The result is a seething, hopping, joyous, and gyrating dance-off that can last into the wee hours. “It’s the best time of their lives,” Kaplan says of the audience, “and they get the message, too. It fills them with something extra.” Almost like religion—but not.
Photograph: Miao Wang