By Jenifer Ruano for Tom Tom Magazine
For drummer and actress Ameenah Kaplan, life has always imitated art. A performer all her life, Ameenah has made appearances on numerous television shows like Dancing with the Stars, Oprah, Conan O’Brien, and The Office. She is the west coast drum coach for Blue Man Group. We think she’s fabulous and so we stopped her during her busy schedule for a little chat.
Age: As old as I look
Hometown: Atlanta, GA
Lives In: Los Angeles, CA
Past Band: The Zodiac Show
Current Band: Kula, Sin City
Day Job: Actress
Favorite Pastime: Going to the theater
Tom Tom Magazine: Tell us how old you were when you got interested in the drums. Are you self-taught or did you have formal lessons?
Ameenah Kaplan: I first started making beats on the desk at school around age 9, but didn’t play my first groove on a drum set until I was 12. It was “Bullet the Blue Sky,” by U2. I had to teach myself; I even made a pair of drumsticks and practiced along to the radio. I was pretty bad until my late teens when I started to get pointers from other drummers. Then it was like starting all over again. I never really had formal training, but I’ve learned something from every drummer I’ve ever seen or met. In particular, the drummers from Stomp were very influential; they really helped me understand what a groove was and how to play parts. After all these years, I finally started studying privately with Charles Ruggiero.
You have accomplished amazing things in the 22 years you have been drumming. But let’s start with your LA Weekly and NAACP award winning production of Everyman for Himself — a mix of martial arts, dance and drumming. Tell us more! How were you able to successfully execute such a cool combination?
My goal was to create a high-octane show with acrobatics that also had a strong narrative. The Everyman project was me exploring this concept. I worked with an awesome actor capable of doing a lot of physical work, surrounded him with dancers who were exploring character work, and underscored the entire thing with two live drummers. It was a coming of age story and a coming of age experience for me. I’m planning more work like this in the future.
You also have an eclectic acting and drumming background. Tell us about how those two things came together for you.
I’ve always been into drumming, acting, and dance. People say that you have to pick one, but I never could. In New York, I discovered that there were forms of theater out there that catered more to my skill set than did Broadway, for example, so I went after that instead. Stomp, Blue Man Group, Fuerza Bruta, Cirque du Soleil, these are the types of shows where my skill set thrives. I’m happiest when I’m working in the arts, so I use everything I can to stay employed that way. Being an actor/singer is great, but I’m not that. I’m an actor/drummer, and I’ve had to carve out a niche for myself.
Given the wide array of shows you have performed, is there any particular one that sticks out in your mind as most memorable?
Yeah. For five years, I played a character in a children’s show at the Hollywood Bowl who didn’t talk but communicated via drumming and dance. It was an unbelievable learning experience for me as a performer and musician. I got to work with musicians and dancers from all over the world. Plus, the kids had a wonderful way of relating to my character. It was like we spoke a secret language, the universal one.
How would you describe your style of playing and what fuels the energy behind it?
I’d say I’m a funky rock drummer with hip-hop and gospel influences.
Your current bands are the rock quartet Kula and hip hop duo Sin City. Tell us how you got involved in both of these projects and what we can look forward to seeing.
Sin City is a band full of actors! We’re all serious musicians too so we just clicked. I think we met free-styling at a party. Malcolm was rapping and asked if there was a drummer in the house. I got up and jammed with him. I think the singer and bass player of Kula knew a friend of mine and told her they were in need of a drummer. That’s my angle. I’m an actor by day so I can loan myself out to bands by night for a deal. That way I get to play with serious musicians while keeping my day job. I’ve gotten to play with amazing people this way, including Rihanna and Macy Gray. Kula is a relatively new project and we just went into the studio for the first time. The Kula EP will be ready for everyone to hear by the end of the summer. I’m super excited about that!! Hey, if Jared Leto can do it, so can I.
You are also the west coast drum coach for Blue Man Group. What do you do in this role?
Blue Man Group has an extensive workshop process that decides who ultimately becomes a Blue Man. I get the guys ready for this process. My goal is to teach them to be drummers and not just do a trick. So, wherever they’re at with their playing, that’s where I pick up. Some guys are kit drummers and need a little help learning to play standing up or with other drummers. Some guys used to play a long time ago and are rusty. Some guys are total beginners that I teach from scratch. I start with Ted Reed’s Syncopation, of course.
That is awesome. What do you do when you aren’t drumming, acting or drum coaching?
I try to stay active. I used to do a lot of rock climbing but I stay active with martial arts mostly. But I consider that to be a dance form, so really, that doesn’t count. Otherwise, I guess I’m a big nerd. I listen to science podcasts like they’re going out of style. I love smart people.
Ha! Us too. Do you have any advice for future lady drummers?
Play. Play. Play. And when you’re done playing, play some more.