For drummer Ramy Antoun, it’s always been about the rhythm. Born in Egypt, the son of a pianist and producer, he began playing when he was three, just after the family had moved to the United States. “I was banging on things in front of the TV, and my dad got me a little snare drum,” he recalls. “By the time I’d turned four he’d got me a little drum kit, and when I was seven I was playing in his band. I never took any lessons.”
His real tutor was the radio. Every day he’d come home from school, “blast the speakers, and I became the drummer of every song. I did that almost every day for an hour until I was about 16. My learning tool was pop songs, so I was always about the song. And I still am.”
But he also absorbed Arab rhythms and meters, which proved to be an invaluable aid when he turned professional, dropping out of college just half a semester into law school.
“I just approached things differently. I thought I wasn’t going to make it, that I wasn’t doing it right. And not having taken lessons fueled that belief. Ironically enough, when I look back, that is why I got here, because I come from a different headspace, because of my ethnic and musical roots. Playing 4/4 was strange to me, coming from the odd meters and rhythms. It influenced a lot of the ways I looked at music.”
Since then he’s never looked back. Primarily a studio musician, Antoun has recorded with many artists, including Black Eyed Peas, Pat Benatar, Paul Oakenfold, Buckethead, Katie Rose, Alannah Myles, Michael Brooke, and Glen Phillips. Additionally he was a member of Summercamp, who were signed to Madonna’s Maverick label, and Latin band Serralde, whose No Hay Na’ Major appeared on Hollywood in 2001.
Although perfectly capable on Arab percussion, he prefers a trap kit, using vintage drums. His setup encompasses “two different bass drums and three different snare drums in the kit. That allows me to play different sounding grooves without using electronics. I use some electronics, but they’re not sounds; I actually trigger effects on different drums. I also tune the differently drums so they sound very different. My kit’s a 1930’s Radio King kit, nothing on my kit is younger than that.”
Antoun has also found success writing music. He’s composed with several artists, and two of his songs appeared on the soundtrack to Matchstick Men.
Antoun has also paid his dues on the road. In 2003 he was part of the band backing Iraqi superstar Kazem Al Saher, who toured the U.S. just before the Gulf War. “There was so much political madness amidst that tour, and why his musicians didn’t make it over. So it was a good statement, about unifying and bringing a new appearance to Iraqis. It was very traditional, crafted music. When I first came in, with an Afro and rocked out, there were all these formal older men, speaking Arabic. I heard a few comments. It was fun, watching their faces change on the first song when they realized I played their rhythms properly. It was a blast, I watched the transformation. Then I started rapping with them in Arabic, and there was such a camaraderie.”
Currently, Antoun is drumming with English pop/soul singer Seal. He was invited to join the band after Chris Bruce, Seal’s bassist and musical director, saw him perform with Alexi Murdoch in Los Angeles. It’s proved to be an excellent learning experience, as “there are only four of us, and we keep each other interested and challenge each other, even Seal. He’s not afraid to go for different things.”
Less than a decade into his career, Ramy Antoun has achieved the kind of success many older musicians might envy. But he’s not resting on his laurels. His aspirations, he says, are “to be able to continue making music and still have a normal life. This is my career, my profession, and it happens to be something I love to do. I feel like I’ve taken that step to another level. I want to play until I can’t play any more.”