Brass music may have its roots in battle, with the lands between India and Croatia creating a seamless mythology of cultural and musical siege and assimilation. Today that sound has been subverted, or as some would argue, taken back. For a long time, brass music was confined to rituals like weddings and funerals, played by folk musicians trying to string dinars together. Today it is being made by some of the most innovative artists in the world, dropping brass into molds of cumbia, Afrobeat, hip-hop, and Indian folk. The possibilities are endless, which is exactly the mindset these bands are taking.
Perhaps the brightest of these lights is the Israeli-born, Brooklyn-bred duo behind Balkan Beat Box, saxophonist Ori Kaplan and drummer Tamir Muskat. Throw in the third "official" member, emcee Tomer Yosef, and what you have is a brass-based Balkan-influenced project that fearlessly tackles cultural issues (bridging the Israeli-Palestinian divide, for one), making three incredible albums in the process.
I was first struck by the inventiveness of their self-titled debut, and was even more impressed by the follow-up, Nu Med. But their latest, Blue Eyed Black Boy (National Geographic Records in the US and Canada; Crammed worldwide), has far exceeded any expectation I could have dreamt up. Sonically and lyrically, the trio, along with numerous guests, has single handedly raised the ante of what modern Balkan music could sound like.
After a brief intro, "Move It" is what fans have come to love about this band: tight hip-hop beat, catchy hook, excellent percussion, and Yosef's flamboyant vocals skipping and jumping around the rhythm. When I caught the band live at Joe's Pub years ago, I fondly remember Yosef acrobatically pouncing not just up and down the stage, but around the entire club as well. This dexterity is transmitted through the band's records, which you immediately pick up on with "Move It."
Then the unexpected happened. The title song is a call to arms against bigotry and prejudice, with a mature musicality we had not heard prior. The beat hangs around early midtempo, with a beautiful bass line leading the charge. It is playful yet serious, with Yosef hypnotically crooning lines like
I tried to figure out but I don't understand/What makes one man better than another man/I tried to figure out if there's something I can't do/To change the way you see me and I see you/The color of my skin unlike the color of my eyes/Is getting me in trouble, costing me a hefty price/I try to stay away from all those sacred clans/I'll try to stay in town, I'll try to make a stand
The reflective moment ends just over three minutes later, when the band sears into a marching song. But "Blue Eyed Black Boy" stays with you, means something to you, because if you're listening to a band of Israelis singing about togetherness overtop a solid musical foundation, you return to their music over and over, which is exactly what I've found myself doing.
Yosef continues to shine on other thoughtful tracks ("Dancing with the Moon," "My Baby"). By contrast, Balkan Beat Box has created its danciest album yet. Two of BBB's prior tracks have been in my DJ arsenal for years: "Hermetico" and Nickodemus's remix of "Adir Adrimi." (The original is great, but lacks roundness on the bottom to really affect a dance floor.) Now I can add club killers like "Marcha De La Vida," "Kabulelctro," and "Balcumbia," perhaps even the hip-hop-ish "Look Them Act." If I'm spinning in a North African frame of mind, "Buhala" makes the cut, the second track featuring Gnawa musician Hassan Ben Jaffar in the BBB catalog. Hearing a Middle Eastern Balkan band crush through Moroccan ceremonial music is quite a treat.
I may even turn to the album's reggae-informed closer, "War Again," again featuring Yosef taking up his duty as civil informant and town crier. This band is the perfect combination of so many things, pushing the boundaries of traditional music into new territory. Add in ambitious vocals overtop one of this early year's best records of any country, and this easily makes your Albums of the Year list. After I asked him what he thought of Gypsy musicians subverting military music into folk son, Boban Markovic told me, "Gypsies don't like military much." Balkan Beat Box is one of our most hopeful rebellions of creating something better in this world through music, and so far the band is doing it just right.