New Groove Review: 20 Questions with Jarrod Kaplan (Hanuman)
We featured Hanuman as our new groove of the month, just over a year ago, in our January 2001 issue. The following piece is another in our series of new groove follow-ups as Dewey Hammond speaks with the band’s founder, percussionist Jarrod Kaplan. The group a busy twelve months performing nearly 200 shows across the country in support of its Shine release. The band’s tour itinerary and other relevant info can be found at www.hanumanmusic.com
DH- Describe Hanuman’s sound to someone who has never heard you before.
JK- Since its conception in 1996, my way of describing Hanuman’s sound has changed and evolved along with our line-up. While Ben Klein (silver flute) was in the band, I’d describe our “Tribal Gypsy Pop” sound as an eclectic cross between acoustic, instrumental Jethro Tull and Ali Farka Toure. After Ben left the band in 1998, we became Hanuman trio.
Our sound became a little funkier, and we tended to improvise more. We began calling our music, “Acoustic Free Folk Funk,” described most tangibly as a cross between Medeski Martin & Wood (MMW) and Ali Farka Toure. When Scott Law (mandolin) joined the band in 1999, we seemed to steer in a more country-funk, bluegrass direction, winding up with a cross-pollination likeness to Bela Fleck, Ali Farka Toure, MMW and David Grisman. Now that Scott has left to pursue a gig with The Melvin Seals Melting Pot, Damien Aitken has been performing with us on saxophone. Use all of the above descriptions and throw in a little Maceo; you might come close to describing us.
DH- How did you learn to play the djembe?
JK- I think my interest in percussion began when I was at The University of North Carolina. I was a "percussion major" for my first semester, studying classical percussion, but was mainly interested in studying jazz drum-set. I went with my class to the PAS (Percussive Arts Society) Convention in Washington, DC, and saw Frankie Malabe and Kim Plainfield do a workshop on Afro-Cuban Rhythms for the drum-set. I was completely intrigued with how the rhythms locked between the kit and percussion, and decided I needed to go study with Frankie in New York. I took a few private lessons with Frankie at Drummer’s Collective, and he told me that if I learned the Afro-Cuban Rhythms on congas, the drum-set parts would be a piece of cake.
I went shopping for congas, but couldn’t find any that I could afford. Instead, I wound up buying a large, nickel-plated brass dumbek (with a tambourine built into it) and a book called, “Dumbek From One Amateur to Another.” I basically taught myself to play, and practiced improvising with other musicians at parties and in drum circles. I think my interest in hand percussion grew from there. In 1989, I transferred to Syracuse University to study communications, and began using the dumbek to perform acoustic sets with my rock band, Yosemite Quick.
In 1990, a friend brought a set of tabla back from India for me, and that summer I studied with Misha Masaud in New York City. I studied dumbek & Egyptian tambourine with Michael Beach (in Portland, OR), and then more tabla (group classes) with Zakir Hussain (in Seattle).
I acquired my first djembe in 1992, shortly after moving to Seattle. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and bought the drum from a Senegalese traveler who needed to sell it before returning to Africa later that week. I immediately began playing the drum at every circle I could find, as well as in acoustic situations with my Seattle rock band, Milk & Money.
At that point, I had begun to develop a style of djembe playing that emulated a drum-set: I found my kick-drum at the center of the drum, the various tom pitches as the tones, and the snare sounds as the open and closed slaps. I also began using shakers on my left ankle, much like a hi-hat, and brass bells on my right leg for accents and counter rhythms.
My style gradually developed and became a lot more refined in the acoustic trio, Trillian Green. With Trillian Green, I began to express a lot more melodic sense through the drum. I found many harmonic pitches, and began to think more in terms of relative pitch in accordance with the melodies the band was playing. I liked playing melody on the drum, and Trillian Green’s music was perfectly suited for it.
DH- Tell us about your unique style of percussion.
JK- My style is a non-traditional blend of many different ethnic styles and techniques. I like to study various traditional rhythms to the point of learning how to get good, clear sounds from the drums, and an idea of how the rhythms feel within the music of whatever culture the drums come from. Once I’ve accomplished that, I have a tendency to move on, because I personally don’t ever see myself performing the traditional music. My thought being that there are already so many amazing bands and musicians that are native to those styles doing them already, why would I want to?
Instead, I prefer to take what I’ve learned, and respectively use it within any other sort of music I happen to be playing. In my case, I’m fortunate with Hanuman to be performing a variety of musical styles at every show. I mainly perform on djembe (and some drum-set and dumbek), but use techniques and feels from many styles of drumming; I’m playing everything from bluegrass to funk to middle-eastern or African "feeling" music.
In traditional drum circles, I’ve actually been criticized for my "non-traditional" technique and even, I’m proud to say, been given the title "The Controversial Djembe Player." Such is the consequence of stray-path navigating I guess? With this in mind, I must say that I greatly respect and enjoy the traditional rhythms and techniques of all drum cultures, and I think that anyone who wants to learn to play should learn as much of the traditional music and technique as possible for the drums they’re playing.
However, I don’t think that playing the instruments traditionally, or playing the traditional music is the end all, or even necessary. As a matter of fact, I often find non-traditional, musical playing more interesting and refreshing. My personal taste in music (and in most everything else) favors uniqueness.
DH- Can you recall the first time you picked up a musical instrument?
JK- In grammar school, I tried learning piano, violin, trumpet and trombone, but nothing ever stuck. When I was around 13 years old, all of my skateboard punk friends began picking up musical instruments and jamming. I was fortunate to have found an old Gibson SG electric guitar at a neighborhood garage sale for $50, but the dream of learning to play was very short lived. Emulating a move in a Plasmatics video on MTV, my so-called friends put the neck of my prize through an old TV screen and cracked it in half.
After that, two of my best friends wound up with bass guitars, and I loved the low, mean, tones they were getting. I suppose I would have loved to learn to play bass, but I couldn’t afford one.
The next instrument to come into the crew’s possession was a drum kit. Luckily for me, I seemed to have a better knack for it than the kid who owned it, so every time the crew got together, they kicked him off and asked me to play. That was the real beginning of my desire to learn to play drums. I finally received a drum kit from my dad as a birthday gift when I was 15, and began studying seriously when I was 16.
DH- Who has been your biggest musical influence?
JK- It’s really hard to site any one influence as the biggest. I suppose all of my teachers and fellow bandmates have influenced my playing style and musicianship.
I mostly enjoy, and am influenced by, music that pulls me into another world, i.e., music that creates a genuine mood that I can relate to in any given emotional state – music to visualize by, and music that is baffling to the imagination with regard to how it’s performed. Sometimes, the more obscure the better, but for me, it has to at least have some melodic and harmonic sensibility.
As far as artists go, my evolution of interests went from my first favorite band (as a kid), ELO, to the hardcore punk of Black Flag & The Bad Brains, to all the biggest art rock bands of the 1970s and 80s: Yes, Pink Floyd, Rush, Led Zeppelin, ELP, King Crimson, David Sylvian, Brian Eno, and others; to the bebop icons: Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, & Ornette Coleman; to jazz fusion monsters: Mahavishnu Orchestra, Pat Metheney, Bob Moses, and Weather Report; to world music, which has become my current biggest influence and interest: Zap Mama, Ali Farka Toure, Hamza El Din, Shakti, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mystery of The Bulgarian Voice, and many others.
DH- What is your favorite city to play in?
JK- Seattle has been the best so far, as it’s our home base, and we have the most die-hard fans there. We can also go home to our own beds after the shows.
DH- What is your favorite venue to play at?
JK- In Seattle, The Tractor Tavern has been a great home base for all of my bands, and is by far, where Hanuman does the best. In Portland, The Crystal Ballroom is my favorite and I wish we performed there more often. In Eugene, Oregon, Sam Bond’s Garage is like Hanuman’s living room. Mojo’s is the place in Ashland, Oregon. In San Francisco, The Great American Music Hall is a place we’d like to play more, but The Last Day Saloon has been good to us as well. In Los Angeles, The Temple Bar is very cool.
DH- What is the best part of being on the road? The worst?
JK- The Best Parts:
Great shows in cool venues while performing for big crowds that pay attention and dance
Visiting new places, sharing music, and meeting new friends and fans
Seeing old friends in different places
Sitting-in with other bands in cool places
Landing at big festivals and sharing universal gripes and road stories with other bands
Cable TV in motel rooms (when we get more than one room!)
The Worst Parts:
Being stuck in a pig-sty van with bandmates you’re sick of, for weeks on end, with no personal space, and a pressing agenda
Loading and unloading gear
Long, dismal drives to crappy venues, to perform for peanuts
Van stench created by bandmates who eat bad combinations of disagreeable junk food
Having to listen to someone else’s CDs when you’re not in the mood
Sleeping on floors in unfamiliar places
Worrying about the gear in the van
Crabby, deaf sound people who don’t know how to mic my djembe, or as they like to call it, a “jambay”
DH- What is the craziest/weirdest/strangest thing that has ever happened on stage?
JK- Off the top of my head, I really can’t think of any strangely noteworthy onstage Hanuman experiences.
Some of my personal freakiest moments on stage have been:
with Leftover Salmon: sitting-in when a crazy fan jumped up on stage and dumped a two-gallon vat of mayonnaise all over himself (High Sierra 1998?); I’ve never smelled vinegar so strong, and the stage became pretty slippery.
while sitting-in with Seattle industrial band, Tchkung in 1997 at The Weathered Wall, a fan set off a military grade smoke bomb! It was an extremely intense, blissfully apocalyptic scene. The smoke was so thick that you literally could not see your hand in front of your face. The band was playing super loud heavy junk-percussion-driven tribal industrial music, and the singer was screaming politically charged lyrics through a megaphone. The remote glow of torches and a spinning police-siren light (on stage) were all that penetrated the thick gray smoke. The venue was filled with 800 half-naked and mud-covered fans; it felt like a sauna from the heat of all those bodies mixed with sweat, and spilled beer.
I think the most frightening thing that happened at a show was when a fire-eating girl accidentally set her whole head and upper body on fire. The beginning of her act (in between our sets) was very cool, but at one point, she blew a fireball and it backfired into her mouth! A few people tackled her and threw a wet towel over her face. The freakiest thing was that when they took it off of her (after what seemed to be 10 seconds), the inside of her mouth was still on fire!!! She turned out to be okay, but people in the room were screaming, and it took a little effort to get the energy of the show flowing again.
DH- Where did you expect to be today five years ago?
JK- Exactly where I am today, which is an inspiring thing, because it makes me believe that with persistent hard work, a little faith and a lot of patience, I’ll eventually achieve all of my goals and dreams.
DH-Where do you see yourself in five years?
JK- If I remain a professional, performing musician, I will be playing on theater stages, in venues all over the world, making great, unique music, with people that I really enjoy doing it with.
If I drop out of touring, but continue playing music, I’ll be creating very cool soundtracks for various video and film projects in my home studio, and distributing CDs to fans through my own record label. I’ll probably also be teaching a lot of “Non-Traditional” djembe and percussion workshops, and selling djembes as well.
I may also be living off of royalties from a good book or screenplay that I’m (eventually) going to write.
DH- Where do you see Hanuman in five years?
JK- Either performing in large-scale venues all over the world, with a full-time management and publicity team growing the bands popularity while we write music, or living-on in the memories of thousands of fans, and on CDs only available thru mail-order on the Internet.
DH- Name your five desert island discs (i.e., if you were stuck on an island for the rest of your life, which five albums would you love to have?)
David Sylvian: Rain Tree Crow
Zap Mama: Adventures in Afroeuropea or Sabslyma
The Beatles: Abbey Road
Yes: Close to The Edge or Fragile
Ali Farka Toure: The Source
DH- What CD is in your CD player right now?
JK- Putumayo’s Brazillian Compilation, Braziliero
DH- In your opinion, what are some of the best bands out there?
JK- Zap Mama, Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Trilok Gurtu, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, The Tony Furtado Band, Sound Tribe Sector 9, The Steve Kimock Band, The Dave Matthews Band, Living Daylights, The Motet, California Guitar Trio, and the list goes on
DH- Who have been your favorite musicians to share the stage with?
JK- Me, personally sitting-in:
Tony Levin, with California Guitar Trio: legendary musician in a theater setting
Bela Fleck, Jeff Coffin, Paul McCandless, Karl Denson and the 2001 High Sierra All Stars: best mind-blowing festival show
Karl Denson: band with the phattest grooves
String Cheese Incident: biggest crowds and most fun drum jams
Dan Bern: most amazing and intense songwriter
Tchkung: most intense, apocalyptic show
Leftover Salmon: wildest antics
Keller Williams: most fun, freakazoid silliness
DH- And with Hanuman?
Joe Craven from David Grisman’s Band
The Grandmothers (Frank Zappa’s original band)
The Tony Furtado Band
DH- Who would you like to share the stage with that you haven’t already?
JK- Medeski, Martin & Wood, The Word, John Scofield, Mike Stern, David Lindley, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Spearhead, Galactic, Ben Harper, Ali Farka Toure, Critter’s Buggin’
DH-Who is your favorite drummer/percussionist?
JK- It’s really hard to name just one, as I see them all as “equal caliber” in their own unique ways. If I had to name one, I’d say Trilok Gurtu is my current favorite.
DH-If you weren’t a musician, what do you think you’d be doing?
JK- Funny that you should ask me this, as with the band’s current state of 180 dates-a-year burn-out, I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately. With a degree in Production for Electronic Media from The Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, concentrating in Film & Clay/3-D Animation, I feel pretty creatively capable in other realms. I’ve recently been considering doing screenplay adaptations of good short stories for television. Before I officially adopted “musician” as my career choice, I was planning to write and shoot animated educational films for kids, using music that I would produce and record. My senior thesis film project was a clay-animated piece called, “The Plight of Mother Earth.”
When I first moved to the Northwest, I tried to break into the very small & cliquey Seattle film community, but wound up as a booking agent and musician instead. The schmooze game is basically the same, and I seem to have a knack for networking. I enjoy the management and record label music business tasks, but not while I’m in the band I’m working for. I’ve considered dropping out of performing, touring, and being in bands to become an agent, but I think I might miss being on stage. Who knows? Either way, I have options, and as long as I can be creative in whatever I do, I know I’ll be happy.