Balkan Beat Box is a group that sounds like its name, although the Balkan component is essentially lowercase - it's more about fragmented ethnicity than the ethnicity itself. Led by the Israeli-born New Yorkers Tamir Muskat (drums) and Ori Kaplan (alto sax), the band is touring through August in support of its second JDub release,
At World Cafe Live on Sunday night, they meshed pan-Mediterranean influences with ultramodern dance beats and displayed flawless instincts for keeping a crowd on its feet.
The show began with a Fellini- esque snare-drum procession from the balcony to the stage. Then the players doffed their face masks and fell into formation: Kaplan and Peter Hess on saxes (plus the occasional clarinet), Muskat on drums and programmed beats, Itamar Ziegler on bass and Jeremiah Lockwood on guitar.
The center of attention was Tomer Yosef, a diminutive MC with a mohawk, who played percussion and keyboard when he wasn't delivering rapid-fire, dancehall-style lyrics in English, Hebrew and more.
"I'm from Middle East but don't belong to no country," he rapped during "Digital Monkey," summing up the band's cosmopolitan credo. The energy level could scarcely have been higher. Responding to album highlights like "Pachima," "Joro Boro" and "$20 for Boban," the crowd jumped and shimmied as one, almost resembling a mosh pit.
Kaplan hails from the ranks of New York's jazz avant-garde, working with such respected figures as William Parker and Susie Ibarra. With Muskat, he played in the surrealist cabaret band Gogol Bordello. The two have now embraced a highly accessible medium without dumbing down their considerable talents. Their fusion of hip-hop, electronica and ethnic music has a parallel in the Asian Massive movement, which boasts such superlative DJs as Talvin Singh.
There are other parallels. Slavic Soul Party!, a New York-based ensemble of horns and percussion, just released Technochek Collision and will soon play Philly as well (International House, May 9). There is also a flourishing neo-klezmer scene, represented at World Cafe by Sunday's opening band, Golem. And the Hasidic reggae oddity Matisyahu is Balkan Beat Box's labelmate on JDub.