Beat Boxing with Yuri Lane The sound of beat boxing has been the background to generations of hip-hop music. But one man is using the form to express a political message of peace for the Middle East. Performer Yuri Lane talks about his one-man show, From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beat Box Journey.
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Beat Boxing with Yuri Lane

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Beat Boxing with Yuri Lane

Beat Boxing with Yuri Lane

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Bringing peace to the Middle East. A lot of people have tried, with high-level government delegations, programs that bring Israeli and Palestinian kids together, experimental neighborhoods integrated with Jews and Arabs, even music and plays. So why not beatboxing?

(Soundbite of beatboxing)

MARTIN: That's beatboxer, Yuri Lane. Lane performs in a theater piece called "From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey." And as you might have guessed, it uses hip-hop and beatbox to talk about the Middle East conflict. Yuri Lane joins us now in studio 4B for this performance chat. Yuri Lane, welcome. Thank you for stopping by.

Mr. YURI LANE (Beatbox Performer): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, for the uninitiated, what is beatboxing?

Mr. LANE: Beatbox is music with your mouth. You use your lips as the drums. You use your voice as a vocal scratch. You use your lips to put the trumpet out there. And you can bring all those sounds together to make a band come out of your mouth.

MARTIN: I just have to testify. It's just Yuri and me here by ourselves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: There's nobody else here. I'm just going to stipulate that for folks who are listening. How did you get into beatbox?

Mr. LANE: I started beatboxing in math class. I just did not have the ability to do algebra. So I started...

(Soundbite of beatboxing)

Mr. LANE: Teacher was like, turn that radio off! So I felt like I had a talent there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANE: But I really started to beatbox, you know, when I was into break dancing, and I used to run with the crew. And, you know, someone always needs a beat. So there was an MC, and I provided the drums. And I just kept beatboxing. And really being a classically trained actor, beatbox really helped me, because you use your voice as an instrument to become an actor. So beatbox lends itself to that.

MARTIN: Your first full-length beatbox performance was "Soundtrack City." And I understand that you put that together by creating it a scene at a time and performing it at clubs around town in San Francisco, which I think is your hometown, at least you grew up there. You weren't born there. But was that because you weren't sure people could tolerate a whole piece, or because you were still exploring the potential?

Mr. LANE: Truthfully, I was like, I'm doing this one-man show! And my girlfriend at the time was like, where is this one-man show? Right, so I began to build the piece at open mikes, and different performance spaces, and really began to build the show with each neighborhood. I started out in the Haight-Ashbury because that's where I'm from. And then moving through different modes of transportation, from the boom box, to the train, to a bike messenger. And really embodying every neighborhood with its own individual soundtrack.

So bringing the beatbox to the stage and embodying different characters with their own individual soundtrack, their own beat.

MARTIN: You've got to get me a beat before this is over. I need my own beat. I think everybody needs a beat.


MARTIN: I want a beat. Can I get a beat?

Mr. LANE: I can give you a beat. I'll give you a beat.

MARTIN: OK. We'll work on that. OK? We'll work on that.

Mr. LANE: OK, yeah. I'm going to thing about it.

MARTIN: OK. Thank you. So let's talk about "From Tel Aviv to Ramallah." It can be understood as a modern take on the biblical story of Isaac and Ishmael. So tell us about the story, and what attracted you to this story?

Mr. LANE: "From Tel Aviv to Ramallah" is a beatbox play about a Palestinian internet cafe owner, Khalid, and Amir, an Israeli delivery boy by day, but D.J. by night. The show goes back and forth between both their lives. I use mime acting, and beatbox, and dance, and live visual projections to show daily life in Tel Aviv and Ramallah. I embody 15 different characters.

Khalid and Amir are the central characters in the show, and I go back and forth between both those places playing their friends, their family members, and their neighborhoods. And the show is about daily life. It's about the humanity of both these two guys, and how they live close to each other but yet how they're separated. And they're separated by this green line.

MARTIN: What gave you the idea?

Mr. LANE: My wife is the writer and director of the show, Rachel Sharon Haverlock. I have to say Ph.D., Dr. Rachel Sharon Haverlock, and she is a biblical scholar, a professor of Jewish studies and English at the University of Illinois, Chicago. And she had spent time extensively in Palestine and in Israel, and she spent a summer in Birzeit University, studying Arabic, and would go back and forth between Tel-Aviv and Ramallah.

And I traveled with her extensively. And one trip we took was in 2000, and we took a trip from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem to Ramallah to Birzeit, in a span of five days, and I would rewind the experience of each day back and beatbox. Rachel had been thinking about writing a book about her experiences, and then we said you know what? We should embody this experience that we both had in a play.

To bring the stories and the experiences that I had to the stage using beatbox as a narrative, using the language of music to embody this experience.

MARTIN: So tell the truth, was it a little like math class where here she's trying to do her serious scholarly thing, and you're going ptshu, ptshu, ptshu (ph)? And she's like OK, OK!

Mr. LANE: Yes, I have been told to stop beatboxing. But of course, she's a big supporter. But yes, I have been told to speak English and not beatbox.

MARTIN: There's a part of the performance where you introduce the audience to Ramallah and Tel-Aviv. Could you do a little bit of that for us?

(Soundbit of Yuri Lane beatboxing)

MARTIN: All right! Man, you must be listening all the time.

Mr. LANE: Yeah, certain people...

MARTIN: That's how you heard? I mean having been to both places, and I'm trying to remember, is that how I heard it? But that's how you heard it?

Mr. LANE: Yeah, you know, there are a lot of other sounds in the show, but certainly when I was in Tel-Aviv, I would hit the clubs and the cafes. And then when I was in Ramallah, I would hit the clubs, and some cafes, and found a lot of similarities. And a lot of the music I was hearing was hip-hop. And then of course, traditional Palestinian folk music, and then Israeli folk dance music. Hearing the sounds of the hookahs coming out of the nargillah bars to hearing the sounds of the cell phones going off in Tel-Aviv.

Everyone has a cell phone, and people like to have conversations on their cell phones while their talking to each other, looking at each other! But Tel-Aviv and Ramallah...

MARTIN: Is that where it started?

Mr. LANE: That's where it started. Listen, it started in Tel-Aviv.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are beatboxing with Yuri Lane, the solo performer in the show "From Tel-Aviv to Ramallah," a beatbox journey written and directed by Rachel Haverlock.

Did you have any hesitation about sort of moving across worlds, because the truth is you do belong more closely to one than the other, right? That is kind of fair to say?

Mr. LANE: Yes, I'm an American Jew, but you know, I have a lot of Palestinian friends. And in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, there's a very large Palestinian community, and began to build friendships and spent time with the Shahadi (ph) family. They invited us into their homes and really got to break bread and be fed more food than I could ever eat.

MARTIN: But it's tricky, though. You understand what I'm saying? It's tricky because there are one-person shows that have been, you know, very well received in this country. And sometimes, you know, the ethnic aspect of it becomes controversial depending on who the performer is. You know like John Leguizamo did "Spic-O-Rama," and then Whoopi Goldberg had a one woman show for which she was very known. I think Lily Tomlin had a one woman show, but when you cross ethnic boundaries, oftentimes I don't know why that is, but it seems to me that if you're, forgive me, the white person in that, it seems trickier than it is for minority person to go the other way, if you get my drift...

Mr. LANE: I do.

MARTIN: And I just wondered if you've experienced any of that?

Mr. LANE: I think a lot of people sometimes have reservations. They're like, oh he's this actor embodying an Israeli and a Palestinian. OK, how is he going to do that? But I try to, you know, be true to those two cities, and to the Israeli culture, and the Palestinian culture. And I've gotten some of the greatest compliments from Palestinians who said, you know, the sounds that they heard and the characters that I embody is like their hometown. And I had a conversation with an Israeli in 2005, when I did "From Tel-Aviv to Ramallah," who said I was like a sponge and really took in the sounds.

And he said that a lot of times, Americans try to do a show about the Middle East conflict, but they don't get it. And he said you get it, and that really gave me some inspiration to continue to do the work.

MARTIN: You felt like you're kind of an honest observer of both worlds? You're sort of connected to both but really attached to neither.

Mr. LANE: Yeah, I mean I certainly have my own political views. You know, this show is not per se political, but I don't believe in occupation. I believe in freedom of movement, and I believe that everyone should have the power to express themselves. So certainly what's happening in Israel and in Palestine, it can't help but affect you.

But I try to bring out the humanity, and to get away from the headlines, and the images of violence, and to show that these are people trying to fulfill their dreams like everybody else.

MARTIN: I should mention that in the theater performance of this, you're beatboxing is accompanied by video.

Mr. LANE: That's right.

MARTIN: And it's a very interesting kind of device, because as you move back and forth between cities, the images kind of blur. And so, just talk to me about this.

Mr. LANE: It's really good that you brought that up, because "From Tel-Aviv to Ramallah" is really, it's a team effort. Sharif Ezzat is an American-Egyptian multimedia artist. He provides live visual projections for my show. He composed a program on his laptop, so to the rhythm of the beatbox, he's hitting a key on his laptop. And with the sound that I'm embodying, there's also an image that comes. It's in black and white. There is a little bit of movement, but he knows the show forwards and backwards, so he is really following the rhythm of the beat, and also providing the visual sets, the live visual sets.

MARTIN: You see your artistic relationship is in some way a metaphor? I'm just curious in how that came about. Was that intentional because he's of an American-Egyptian background, and you're an American Jew, and working together, was that its own statement, or was that just a happy accident?

Mr. LANE: No, I think it really is a statement. You know, Sharif's father was in the Egyptian Air Force, and he left Egypt after the war, and he came to the United States, so Sharif had some things that his dad told him about Israel. And I had some preconceptions about the Muslim world, and so we've learned a lot from each other. And we don't agree on everything, and that's the beauty of it. But what we do agree on is, you know, this performance. And sometimes the way to communicate is through art.

So we are communicating, and in a lot of ways, the character of Khalid is Sharif. Certain bits and pieces of Sharif, and I don't know where I fit in. I think that I'm - there's a little bit of Amir in me, except I'm a DJ with my mouth.

MARTIN: The piece has been performed all over the country. It's currently being performed in Baltimore at Center Stage. Do you get different reactions depending on where you are? And I also wonder if it's ever been performed overseas?

Mr. LANE: I performed in the U.K. I performed in Helsinki. I'll be heading out to Vienna in the fall, and each audience reacts differently. That's the power of theater. It always keeps me on my toes. I've had an entire Muslim audience see the show. I've performed for Hadassah, a Jewish women's organization. So it's been a real wide variety of audiences.

But they all seem to really enjoy it. They definitely come in like folding their hands saying like what is - is this going to be a show where I go - you know, just beatbox the whole time? But there's dialogue. There's movement. There's mime. There's dance, and sometimes folks that are from a different generation maybe don't understand what beatbox is, but they understand the language of sound and of music.

And I think I tried, like I said before, stay true to both these peoples and to these cities, and I think that everyone understands borders. You know there are these invisible borders. There are borders in Baltimore. You know, you go into one neighborhood, and it's a lot different, and you'll be treated differently when you go into that neighborhood. I've done the show in Cleveland and had a audience of high school students, and they knew about borders. They cross into this certain neighborhood in Cleveland, they would get, you know, hassled by the cops, right?

So I think that people understand borders, and they understand, you know, these two different places. So I think it appeals to people who are interested in the Middle East conflict. Folks that are Muslim or are Jewish, but also people who understand what it means to be in one neighborhood, and then you go into a different neighborhood, and then depending on the color of your skin or your religious background, you are treated differently.

MARTIN: Do you think you could teach me to beatbox?

Mr. LANE: Yes, I can definitely teach you to beatbox. Michel, say ba.


Mr. LANE: Say Bah!


Mr. LANE: Now, eliminate the "ah" and just go B.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANE: Yeah, well you can do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I can't!

Mr. LANE: You can do it.


Mr. LANE: Now eliminate the "ah" and just go B.


Mr. LANE: Good. Now say Tst.


Mr. LANE: And now say Tst Ke.


Mr. LANE: Now combine these three sounds. You can't be afraid to say B Tst Ke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANE: You can't be afraid to say B Tst Ke.


Mr. LANE: You're getting better. OK, so try it again. Say B Tst Ke. Now, say Tst Tst. Can you make this sound? Ka?


Mr. LANE: Yeah!

MARTIN: I have babies. I can do that one.

Mr. LANE: OK, right, see babies - I have a three-month-old daughter, and she speaks my language. OK, so again...

MARTIN: My kids call a pacifier a B, so that's what I'm kind of thinking.

Mr. LANE: So good, so go B Tst Ke.

MARTIN: Buh Tst Ke.

Mr. LANE: Good! B Tst Ke. Good. Now, go Bim.

MARTIN: Bim Tst Ke.

Mr. LANE: You did it! Bim Tst Ke.

MARTIN: Bim Tst Ke.

Mr. LANE: You just learned your first beatbox. You heard it here. We're live on NPR here in Washington, D.C. She's going to be busting beats the rest of the day.

MARTIN: Yeah, I was going to say, you're a good sport. Keep my day job, right? Yuri Lane is the beatboxer and solo performer in the show "From Tel-Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey." He's currently performing in Baltimore at Center Stage Theater.

Yuri Lane, thank you so much for stopping by. Have you got a beat for me? I need a beat. Have you got one for me?

Mr. LANE: Of course I got a beat for you.

MARTIN: All right, let's hear it.

Mr. LANE: I'm going to bring you guys out with a little beatbox harmonica, because I live in Chicago, and I'm known around the Internet world for the beatbox harmonica. So let me drop this for you guys.

(Soundbite of Yuri Lane beatboxing)

MARTIN: This is Tell Me More. Thanks for listening. Let's talk more tomorrow. I'm Michel Martin.

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