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Field Trip: Tufts punk-rock class visits with Balkan Beat Box and the Sway Machinery

I've been teaching a course at Tufts University on the Jewish roots -- cultural, not religious -- of punk rock. As you might guess, it's an elective. On Wednesday evenings, my students and I examine topics ranging from comic books to Zionism to the Holocaust and explore how they relate to PUNK magazine, D.I.Y. culture, and the Ramones' fascination with Nazi imagery. Along the way we also engage - academically, of course - with terms like Juido (a Jew trying to pass as an Italian), shpilkes (a nervous state similar to punk excitement), and, um, Chicken-Fucker (think Lenny Bruce at his most outrageous). If nothing else, it allows us to blast "Blitzkrieg Bop" through the halls of academe.

When post-punks -- or at least Orange Juice and, later, the critic Simon Reynolds -- demanded that we "rip it up and start again," I never dreamed the words would apply to my syllabus. But when I saw that a couple of Jewish-rooted electronic bands, Balkan Beat Box and the Sway Machinery, were coming to the Paradise, I had a revelation - we needed to get out of the classroom. What we needed now was to tear down the walls and head back into the streets - or at least back into the beer-stained halls and sticky floors of clubland, with an all-access backstage pass.

Thanks to the folks at JDub Records we were able to do just that. After meeting over beers (for the 21-plus students only - and I'm sticking with that story) we filed into a smoke-filled (only nicotine, for the lurid among you) dressing room where various members of both Balkan Beat Box and Sway Machinery were waiting to go onstage.

The musicians were intense, yet friendly. And the students were encouragingly poised, a fact I'd like to attribute (but can't) to my supremely cool example. Their questions made the traditional rock interview look like so much chopped liver. The guys in BBB and SM are a mix of New Yorkers and Israelis, and their music fuses electronica with Jewish, Arab, and Balkan folk styles. My students and I asked whether they were "like the original punks who were living in the shadow of the Holocaust and [committed to] social justice?" And about how New York, and a history of Jewish cosmopolitanism, has played into their music. The answers were revelatory and even controversial.  "[We're no] more special than other people, like the Palestinians who are still having a Holocaust ... but of course [the Holocaust] affects you," said BBB's percussionist Tamir Muskat, who was born and raised in Tel Aviv. "Everyone [in my grandparent's family] was completely erased."

"I often think of [us] as a New York band," added BBB guitarist and Sway Machinery singer Jeremiah Lockwood, because their music "comes from living in close proximity to people of other cultures and the kind of spiritual growth you're forced to undergo by having to look through the eyes of someone different than yourself and make them your brother." With their street smarts and uncompromising honesty, both BBB and SM are deeply punk in attitude if not style.

In the video above -- shot by Phoenix videographer Pat Howley, and including interviews conducted by me and the students (Meredith Turits, Mose Berkowitz, Andrew Sokoloff, Stephanie Coplan, and Max Glantzman) -- you can get a taste of what transpired when we escaped the academy for the club.

Steven Lee Beeber is the author of The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk. For more, visit www.jewpunk.com  
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