Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Balkan Beat Box at Festival International Nuits d'Afrique

Balkan Beat Box  |  Festival International Nuits d'Afrique

                                  PHOTOS  |  VALERIA VEGA

Local sensation Boogat's smile is full of sincerity when he steps off the stage after his very lively set. Understandably. Most people would agree that the mission of any opening act is to warm up the crowd, and the least one could say is that, on this gorgeous July 13th, this Montrealer's Spanish hip hop did just that. Moreover, Nuits d'Afrique was nice enough to let him hire a few band members, including a saxophonist and a percussionist, which made his already fairly warm beats simply burning hot. In brief, his gigantic grin as he waves the public goodbye is more than justified.

I step outside to get some fresh air while the technicians of Le National get busy preparing everything for the night's main act. I'm utterly aware that things are likely to get sweaty in the near future, and so I absorb as many atoms of crisp atmosphere as I can.

Wise move.

The members of Balkan Beat Box do not mess around when the time comes to rock it out. They go all in. Case in point: when I sort of pinch myself about midway through their high-energy performance, for one of the rare times in my existence, I am lucky enough to witness a whole crowd jump simultaneously. It's beautiful. Poetic. I take it all in, too. What makes it even better is that, for once, people are dancing to lyrics that are actually meaningful.

Indeed, a big part of Balkan Beat Box's trademark is its tendency to speak of politically charged subject matters. On their latest LP, titled Give, they once more irreverently put forward that aspect of their identity, with a visceral sense of purpose. “At the time, it was the first Egyptian revolution, Tahrir square and all that, it was very inspiring,” band cofounder Ori Kaplan remembers. “There was something in the air at the time we made the album. Some of the music was the zeitgeist, that moment… people kind of rising up. So that’s also on the album, and we’re glad, because we’re living through that time, and it’s in the music.”

Refreshing, is it not? And one should not be fooled: BBB is not incapable of being light-hearted. They just reckon that ‘dancing uncontrollably’ and ‘standing up for your rights’ do not have to be mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, in most electronic music, these two aspirations tend to not overlap, something that Kaplan finds a tad disappointing. “I wish that, in the electronic music world, DJs would raise up some things,” he says. “But most of them are afraid of it like it’s fire. They run away from it. It has to be just about, you know, light and sexy, or heavily pornographic, but nothing else. Usually.” He pauses, then adds: “They think that if it’s not sexy, people will run away, and it’s wrong!”

In fact, he considers that the power of the DJs’ and producers’ voices is largely underused. “I wish that some of them were like, ‘OK, something’s really going on, young people are coming out in squares, all over, Occupy Wall Street, and all that.’ But where’s the voice? These people rally 10,000 in a trance evening, and nobody’s saying a word, it’s like… all escapism. What I’m saying is: wouldn’t it be cool if 20,000, or 30,000 people in a festival came, and the DJ would actually have something meaningful to say to them? They would still be dancing their asses off! It doesn’t contradict! It’s just a fear from the producers, DJs.”

Political consideration asides, Balkan Beat Box is also very popular for being the number one representative (some would say the pioneer) of a phenomenon that gave birth to a scene in itself (generally designated as ‘Balkan Beat’): the blend of traditional instruments and techniques from Eastern Europe with synths and various other electronic music elements. Do not get it wrong, though: these guys are no revivalists. They just compose their songs according to the inspiration of the moment, based on their own musical backgrounds. Since Tamir Muskat and Ori Kaplan, two of the band’s founders, are both from Israel, such backgrounds include techniques that they simply feel compelled to use in their own oeuvre (in fact, Kaplan used to be a klezmer clarinetist). In other words, they like traditional music that comes from their neck of the woods enough to draw inspiration from it and paying a form a tribute to it, but they actually seek to make modern music that is likely to move feet, hips, and spirits. Danceable beats, with a dash of old school Balkan vibes. That’s the stuff.

On Give, however, the band proves that it is not bound by its place of origin. Its three members show how attuned their ears are to the fluctuating course of music-to-dance-to’s evolution. Indeed, most of the record is fast-paced, fairly hardcore, and stuffed with weird, never-before-heard noises coming from (literally) children toys that were lying around the studio. This source of sonic innovations is complemented by the use of a healthy bunch of low-bitrate sounds of all kinds, giving the album an afro-tech vibe, namely a distinct kuduro flavour on certain pieces. It’s fun, it’s different from what these musicians delivered in the past, except for one important detail: the beats are still pumping. ‘You’ll dance in a new way, granted, but you will dance, rest assured,’ the album seems to yell into listeners’ ears.

Such a promise is utterly kept at Le National on the night of BBB’s amazing Nuits d’Afrique performance. Dancing, jumping, and even mosh-pitting on the public’s part are all activities that are condoned by the joyous folks on stage, who include a drummer, two saxophonists, a percussionist/MC, a synth player, and other musicians that the night’s colourful madness are making me forget. A long-time fan of BBB, I am grooving to its live sound for the very first time. Needless to say, I am swimming in glee, in the kind of happiness that even the severe lack of sleep weighing on my eyelids does not affect. However, I am able to take a step back and objectively recognize the sheer genius of these musicians, regardless of my avowed love for their festive compositions. 

What I mean by that is that any newbie, that is, anyone who would happen to be unaware of just how efficiently these guy can light up a party would have no choice but to rally to the hordes of fans. Seeing these guys live is, quite simply, enough to fall in love with what they do. Sure, songs like Political F**k and Move It are met with a bit of an extra cheer, undoubtedly liberated by the crowd members who have known BBB’s music for a while. However, it is during the never-ending progressive jams, in the midst of the irresistible dance-inducing beats that the loudest screams of satisfaction raise from the entirety of the sweating audience. The whole is punctuated with impulsive awe-filled woohoos, with enthusiastic attempts by everyone’s hands to reach the ceiling. I come to understand what Kaplan means when he says: “You win fan by fan, one by one, one person. Then, you have a victory as a band. You win one person’s heart, they’re going tell their friends, and it’s going to be a meaningful relationship between the fans and the band. Then, it’s grassroots, and it’s better than a wide thing that can go up and down.”

The set lasts over two hours, during which the ground shakes under people’s jittery feet. At the most hardcore end of their musical spectrum, the band offers a speedy cocktail of video games sounds and heavy drums, and at the chillest extremity of it, they play a bass-filled form of roots reggae. There are countless saxophone solos, syncope beats, and speed shifts, as well as an overall chemistry that is straightforwardly remarkable. The joyful unit comes back for a long encore, at the end of which all its members bow to the crowd with an expression of ‘job well done’ in their face. They are soaked in sweat.

So, let it be told: the members of Balkan Beat Box are great producers, who also happen to deliver the goods when it is time to play live. Although they take both aspects (the studio production and the live experience) very seriously, Kaplan does admit that they seek for one to be reflected in the other. That is why, currently, there are talks of a live DVD to be produced soon, one that would give any watcher a good idea of what to expect when this band takes the stage.

‘Other than that, what?’ might you ask. Well, apparently, there is new music being produced for an upcoming album, which, again, is going to sound a bit different from what BBB has offered its adepts in the past. How? When? What subgenre? I could not squeeze any other detail of out Kaplan.

I guess I’ll have to be patient.

More photos of Balkan Beat Box

More reviews of Festival International Nuits d’Afrique
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