Balkan Beat Box & Sway Machinery @ Southpaw 9/16/06


balkanbeatboxIt was a night of multiculti mashups at Brooklyn’s best mid-sized concert venue. First up was Sway Machinery, led by Jeremiah Lockwood. His contributions are singing (in Hebrew) influenced by the classic Jewish cantors - his grandfather Jacob Konigsberg among them - and guitar playing that mixes Afropop and the blues (at times inevitably recalling the late, great Ali Farka Toure). Throw in bass saxophone, tenor sax, and trumpet by members of Antibalas and powerhouse drummer Tomer Tzur and the result mixes the above influences with klezmer, free jazz, and soul. The considerable sophistication of this blend peaked on the final number, in a triple-meter feel of 12/8 with an underlying two-against-three that made it the most polyrhythmic piece of the entire evening. Most worldbeat fusions are afraid to stray any further from a standard 4/4 than the first half of a Bo Diddley beat, so this was refreshing. (I’m still waiting to hear a rock group drawing on Eastern European influences that’s not afraid of their common asymmetrical time signatures, such as 5/4; jazzmen such as Dave Douglas in his Tiny Bell Trio and, decades ago, Joe Maneri, have already shown the way.)

The headliners, Balkan Beat Box, were less subtle, at times outright gimmicky, definitely cheesy/kitschy (if you’re prominently featuring a synth effect that Steve Miller made ubiquitous 30 years ago, this is not a debatable point!), and utterly married to 4/4, but so energetic and distinctive that their infectiousness is undeniable. At first, I had even higher hopes: Mostly a sextet this night (their membership expands at times), they entered through the audience playing two snare drums, bass drum, maracas, and two saxophones, sounding like the mutant offspring of a drum line and Albert Ayler. But that’s not really their thing. Once everyone was onstage, the saxophonists switched to Bulgarian wedding band riffs - lots of modal tunes in parallel thirds – and later on switched to clarinets for a klezmer-inflected tune. And there were really only two drummers, the others strapping on bass and guitar. More to the point, one of the drummers, Tomer Yosef, began rapping in the aggressive, rhythmically forward style of dancehall toasters as a sampled hiphop beat boomed behind him; later in the set, reggae beats were used, and of course plenty of that half-Diddley beat. Yosef also triggered plenty of samples and canned beats, and exuded enough energy to replace the Alaska pipeline. Whatever my complaints about the lack of adventure in the rhythms (pretty relative given all those styles), main drummer Tamir Muskat is so hard-hitting and precise yet funky (in the broadest sense) that my only criticism is of what he doesn’t do (intrinsically unfair in a way), because what he does is impeccable. He and alto saxist Ori Kaplan (ex-Gogol Bordello) are the leaders of this group and have given it a laser-fine focus that makes all the many ingredients cohere marvelously.

Occasional BBB member Lockwood returned for a funny number that he sang in English. BBB’s encore managed to lift the excitement level even higher, finishing with an anti-Bush chant/groove that followed up on a plea for peace in the Middle East – this group is not just about dancing. This invigorating evening, Sway Machinery interested me the most on a purely musical level, but it was Balkan Beat Box that got the joint dancing ecstatically.- Steve Holtje

Photo by Miao Wang


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who recently recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.