Concert review: Balkan Beat Box mashes up all manner of sounds at the Old Rock House, Sunday, June 3
Gypsy punk. Electronica. Hip hop. World Music. Not since listening to a random Manu Dibango CD — left behind by an old roommate when he moved — have I ventured into the esoteric and somewhat intimidating genre of world music.
Sometimes it’s hard to listen outside the box when there are so many good things right here. And thankfully, Balkan Beat Box was right here in St. Louis last night.
So, with limited exposure and peaked curiosity I set my course for the Old Rock House. At the core of Balkan Beat Box are three talented and diverse musicians: Tamir Muskat (percussion), Ori Kaplan (sax), and Tomer Yosef (lead vocals, percussion). For last night’s show this trinity doubled to become a sextet, with bass, guitar and a second sax joining the mix. There was also clarinet, tambourine, two drum kits, spaceship laser sounds, a whistle, cowbell, some inspirational words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and maracas. The stage was barely big enough to contain all of Balkan Beat Box’s musical ambition.
Yet, somehow the Old Rock House was the perfect place for them despite a cramped stage jam packed with instruments and people. Balkan Beat Box’s influences are as widely varied as the tools of their trade; throughout the course of the hour and a half they shared with us we heard traditional instrumentals, reggae, hip hop, punk and mash-ups of all of the above.
The show began under a halo of red lights. The first two songs were definitely reggae or dub influenced but had faster backbeats which got the audience up and dancing from the first note. Ori Kaplan and his fellow saxophonist gave us more traditional sounding instrumentals. While I’m not knowledgeable enough to pinpoint a geographic origin with confidence, it sounded to me like the group’s Israeli and Mediterranean roots were showing through on those.
As the show progressed, the music got faster and gutsier and the lights followed suit, flashing in time. Tomer Yosef revealed his love of hip hop and gave the audience his flow in a song dedicated to an Air Alaska flight attendant named “Miss Paranoia.” He even channeled Zach de la Rocha on the song “Political Fuck,” which was really the only song all night that was less upbeat and more intense. Yosef called out to the audience frequently, asking us to come closer to the stage, urging us to clap our hands, dance and join them.
Seeing Balkan Beat Box was like going to a street party where the atmosphere is relaxed and the sole point of the whole affair is to dance and have a good time, as simple as that sounds. I often found myself closing my eyes and picturing different landscapes: a beach under the stars, a backyard with lights strung over a grassy dance floor, an alley where music echoes out of the windows above and bounces between the buildings.
During a frenzied three-song encore, people freed themselves of purses, shoes and drinks so they could dance. Couples took each other’s hands and spun around while a hula hoopstress entertained us all on the patio outside. People spontaneously hugged each other, and there was a sense of celebration and joy. It seemed like the band was having just as good a time as the audience, especially during the encore.
If BBB’s mission is to bring traditional, less familiar sounds to a wider audience by blending them with more modern hip hop and electronic rhythms, mission accomplished. This show was just fun, period.