Balkan Beat Box Review

Klezmer, hip-hop, jazz, gypsy, Middle-Eastern and Eastern-European/Balkan music.

Traveling to see a band is, besides research, rock climbing and eating jellybeans, probably the most fun that I can have. Not only do you get to road trip it, you also get to see a vast array of awesome and unique venues. With those thoughts in my mind, I was contemplating traveling to see the San Francisco garage kings, Thee Oh Sees.

Thee Oh Sees are one of my all-time favorite bands to see live, and I was thinking about traveling to Albuquerque to see them at Low Spirits, rumored to be a pretty sweet place to see a show. I was just about to make travel plans with a friend of mine that lives there when there was earth shattering news: Balkan Beat Box was doing a seven day US tour, culminating at SXSW. Since only crooked bankers and top notch drug dealers can seemingly afford to go to SXSW any more, I broke off all plans to see Thee Oh Sees and made immediate plans to head to Chicago to see one of the most amazing bands that’s ever impacted my auditory system.

There were three ‘must-see’ acts that would leave my soul eternally sulking if I missed the chance to see them. The first on the list is Led Zeppelin. This one doesn’t disturb me at all, simply because I fully understand that it is impossible, and that impossible should probably be in capitalized letters. But it still leaves me a little sad to know that I can’t even get to see them 40 years past their prime. The second on the list is Tom Waits. I will travel to any place that you can reach without the help of sled dogs or Amazon forest guides to see Tom Waits so I’m pretty confident that I will be able to see him in the coming few years. The last band I was able to scratch off the list last Saturday.

Balkan Beat Box is a very unique mix of klezmer, hip-hop, jazz, gypsy, Middle-Eastern, dance, digi, and Eastern-European/Balkan music. The most impressive aspect of this band, beyond all of the members being supremely talented, is that all of the music meshes perfectly and at no point seems overly complex or unnecessary. And with the inclusion of Tomer Yosef as the vocalist/MC, they have even tapped themselves into the well of protest music, not dissimilar to Rage Against the Machine. This isn’t your typical protest music: all of the individuals have roots in Israel and Palestine and have first hand knowledge of what real and affective violence is. In fact, Tomer Yosef was recently hand-cuffed and escorted off of a flight because the TSA thought he was a terrorist (this inspired, in my opinion, the best song of the new album, ‘Enemy in Economy’).

Founded by former Gogol Bordello, Big Lazy and Firewater member Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat, also a member of Big Lazy and Firewater, this band has steadily evolved from a mainly instrumental act that utilized vocal samples from their days on JDub Records to their current presence as progressive gypsy-dancehall-protest music on the Crammed Discs and Nat Geo labels. Tamir Muskat is the driving force behind this sound. His incredible beats and drumming back the more apparent voice of Tomer and the unique, jazz-based saxophone of Ori. You can also get Tamir’s talent and musical vision from his excellent producer work on a Balkan Beat Box/Gogol Bordello conglomeration call J.U.F. and the Firewater release, The Golden Hour. Oren and Tomer have the luxury of being front and center to the audience during shows and they don’t disappoint. Oren is responsible for taking the lead on the sax and, recently, added a digipad and a synth while Tomer has his own drumset and samples as well.
The new album, Give, showcases all of the above but has the added element of an almost math-rock backbeat. I think it is because there are multiple people dealing with synths and multiple layers to each song but, regardless, it is a very interesting addition to the saxophones on the melody. This album has a lot more aggressive energy as well. This follows a side project release of these three and company, called Shotnez, which is a straight punk sound, but instead of being rooted in the ground of the Ramones or the Wipers, it is rooted in Yuri Yunakov and Fanfare Ciocarlia. Give is also about a search for identity, both personal and societal. With songs about being true to yourself, political outrage and Tomer’s flight experience, as well with the fact that all three of them have recently became fathers (something they mention in an interview shaped the album), they are placing familiar matters that we all face and essentially saying “Use our music to dance ourselves together.”

With all of the being said, I was quite excited to head up to Chicago. On Friday the 9th, my friend Peter, my girlfriend and I set out for Chicago following my late morning class. We ended up in Old Town staying at a friend of Peter’s in an apartment directly under the ‘L’. And when I say directly, I mean his upstairs neighbor could get on the waiting platform for the Red Line by stepping, not jumping, from his kitchen window. But, as with all sounds of the city, we got used to it pretty quickly.

Following my first time driving in Chicago, where lunatics and meth addicts clearly are the driving majority, we spent a few hours around Wrigleyville for dinner, where I had a shamrock milkshake with Lucky Charms (FYI), and we headed back to sleep under the trains and get ready for the show the next day.

When we woke up and finally got motivation to head out, we went to the Chicago staple Hot Doug’s, where we waited in line for an hour for a hot dog. And I would have easily waited two more. The hotdogs from this place are other-wordly. You can get the typical Chicago dog or you can get something ‘gourmet’. I got one of the gourmet dogs: the smoked Portuguese linguiça with a saffron rouille and aged Ibérico cheese. They had about 10 other amazing dogs but I couldn’t eat them all…even if I wanted to. But the highlight of the wait was my friend Peter and his friend having a very nice conversation about how much it would cost to eat the genitals of from a dead person and whether or not they would do it if it was written into the wills of the other. I will be honest and say that I don’t think the stagnant line of hungry individuals appreciated it. It actually looked like one guy was about to pass out from it. So after our hot dogs, we went did a little rock climbing at a local gym, then picked up some spices at the amazing Spice House and then headed back to get ready for the show. We grabbed some dinner at a place near the venue and in we headed.

I was lucky enough to get a last minute photographer pass and needed to pick up some batteries. Unfortunately, I forgot I needed to do that and went to start taking pictures when my camera died. We had to call Peter’s friend and he had to sprint to get me some before the show started and since I couldn’t leave the venue, I just hung out by the door. It was here, by the door where security was checking ID’s, that I saw something I never thought I’d see.

A group of about five guys, probably around 24 or so, came to the door asking if tickets were still available, which they were. But to get in they needed to show their ID. The first four get in without a problem, but the last guy is too drunk to even get his ID out of his wallet. When he finally does, he drops it and almost falls flat on his face to pick it up. The bouncer simply hands the card back to him and says that he can’t let him in because he’s too drunk. This does not stand too well with the drunk individual and he starts getting in the face of the bouncer, who is clearly not intimidated by a 5’5” and 140lb intoxicated guy. The bouncer just keeps on checking ID’s. The the drunk kid gets really into his face and that’s when the real Bouncer, capital letter intended, shows up. He was about 6’6” and probably 300 and the kid looked absolutely terrified. The Bouncer puts his arm around him and says “Let’s talk,” and guides him away from the line where he simply tells him that he’s too drunk to get in and yelling at everyone is not helping his chances. The kid then, almost apropos of nothing, shouts in his face “Do you know who I am?” Now I have only heard of this happening and, even then, thought it only happened to D-list celebrities or small town mayors. The bouncer chuckled and smiled, looked at the people in line with at look that said, “Really?”, and said no. The kid shouted “I’m motherfucking Mark Schwarz! Motherfucking Mark Schwarz!”. The Bouncer and everyone in line simultaneously erupted in laughter and this immediately puts the kid to level 11. “Do you know who Joseph Schwarz is?” he shouted and the Bouncer shook his head. “You don’t know who Joseph Schwarz is? He’s my father and a lawyer and he’s going to sue your ass and put you into the dump. INTO THE DUMP!” The Bouncer smiles but is clearly tired of putting up with the idiot and tells him very politely, but sternly, to leave. Nobody in the line is moving, simply to see when the hilarity ends. It’s was kind of like listening to George Carlin, where you treat laughter like applause. You don’t want to laugh during the bit because you need to hear everything he’s saying and then, when the final and most dramatic punchline is released, all of the laughter and tension you’ve built up rushes out, ending the tension. That was pretty much what this line was doing. This is when one of the idiot’s friends finally comes back to rescue him. He confidently puts his arm around the Bouncer and says, quite smugly I will note, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of him.” The Bouncer simply looks at the kid and says “If you say one word to him I’m taking you out, too.” The kid’s friend looks at the Bouncer, then to Mark, and says “Well, see you later, Mark!” I lost it, the Bouncer lost it, Mark went ballistic and stumbled away muttering something incoherently and then Peter’s friend showed up with my batteries. The only thing I wished was to get the batteries sooner so I could have documented it.

We missed the first band while I was enjoying my time by the door and caught enough of the second act to wish I had never heard it. However, it gave me some time to get my bearings of the Metro, which to put it in some local perspective, is about the size of Liberty Hall, minus every row in the balcony, save about five. So it’s not a large venue at all. But since I had a press pass, I was looking for the best spots to take a picture and the second band gave me the opportunity to do just that. I was only allowed to take non-flash pictures in the appropriate sections for the first three songs so I immediately went and pushed myself up to the front. Unfortunately, I was having camera problems and wasn’t able to adjust everything to where it needed to be. When I was testing out the camera for the second band, there was ample amount of light. That wasn’t the case with Balkan Beat Box. And since they move around a lot, along with a lack of light, my camera couldn’t quite adjust.

In the end, I got a few pictures that worked. I was also a little nervous for the show, which hasn’t happened in a long time. After you see so many shows, you tend to lose that edge that what you are seeing may be unforgettable. This night was unforgettable, thanks to Mark Schwarz and one of the best bands in the world. It is just another piece of evidence that can state how much music can mean to individual. Whether you like Balkan music like myself, or like Classical music or jazz, there should be a time where you see an event that gives you goosebumps because the notes resonate in your soul for whatever reason. But I’ll remember the night, principally, as the time I got to hang out with Peter and my girlfriend and listen and dance with everyone else to some of the best music that exists. There is beauty of a band like Balkan Beat Box: there is no mosh pit, there are no completely drunk assholes and there is nobody there to ruin it for you. Everyone puts their head down, closes their eyes, grabs the person that’s next to them and simply moves to the music. They mind their space and they don’t talk during the show. It’s a rare moment where all of the artists and everyone in the crowd are in-tune to the energy being created and it propels everyone forward. There were no breaks to re-tune instruments or tell pointless stories to fill time. It was song after song and dance after dance and it was, honestly, magical.

After the show ended, we hopped on the train and talked excitedly about the show until we got back to the apartment, where as soon as I laid my head down, I was asleep. We woke up a few hours later and got back on the road to Lawrence, where I kept imagining that soon, hopefully, Tom Waits we be back on tour.

by zachary graham
tune in to balkanization of the american nation every thursday night from 8 to 9 p.m.

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