Mickey Hart: Unity, healing through the beat

  • Mickey Hart

    Mickey Hart

Published: 7/4/2008 12:08 AM

Drummers are expected to focus on rhythm, but Mickey Hart's dedication cannot be compared to that of your average skin brasher. For him, rhythm is seemingly inseparable from life itself.

Author, musicologist and social activist Hart is best known to rock audiences for his time in the Grateful Dead, where he and fellow percussionist Bill Kreutzmann explored polyrhythmic jams in concert segments known to fans as "Rhythm Devils." His acquisition of percussion instruments from around the world sparked an interest in global cultures, leading to collaborations with drummers as Nigeria's Babatunde Olatunji, Brazil's Airto Moreira and India's Zakir Hussain.

Hart believes in bringing people together through rhythm. His 1991 album "Planet Drum" united these artists and more in a groundbreaking celebration of multicultural drumming, which earned the very first Grammy for Best World Music Album. For the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games, Hart composed a piece that was performed by 100 percussionists, and as part of 2004's Earthdance festival, he organized a drum circle in California that was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as history's "Largest Drum Ensemble." Aside from performing, he works with the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center to preserve its collection of decaying analog field recordings and campaigns for recognition of rhythm as a source of neurological healing,

In recent years, Hart formed the Global Drum Project with Hussain, Nigerian talking drum master Sikiru Adepoju and Puerto Rico's Giovanni Hidalgo, and he teamed with Kreutzmann in an ensemble dubbed the Rhythm Devils. The new DVD "Rhythm Devils Concert Experience" (StarCity) documents a 2006 concert at the Chicago Theatre by the latter group, which includes guitarist Steve Kimock and former Phish bassist Mike Gordon. Featuring a number of new songs co-written with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, it's actually the first release to bear the Rhythm Devils name since the music from the 1979 film "Apocalypse Now."

The Mickey Hart Band's current incarnation performs Saturday at the Lake View Music Fest in Chicago. The group includes Rhythm Devils alums Hart, Kimock, Adepoju and vocalist Jen Durkin, plus The Meters' bassist George Porter Jr., keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth of The String Cheese Incident and Latin drummer Walfredo Reyes Jr. Following is an edited conversation with Hart.

Q. On the "making of" portion of the DVD, you start to say that Chicago has a lot of memories.

A. Chicago was usually last on the tour, at Soldier Field, and of course the Field Museum is there. These are favorites of mine. It was always the place to stock up on amazing drum equipment. The people there, it's almost like New York as far as really being into the music and rabid (laughs). It was always a wonderful town for us.

Q. What do you remember about the Chicago show you filmed for the DVD?

A. It was filled with energy. We played really well, and it seemed to be representative of who we were at the time. It was a work in progress. We hadn't played many shows then. The songs now are much more developed in the live performance. It's a beautiful aural snapshot of us.

Q. When you're composing, how do you balance leaving space for improvisation with more straightforward song segments?

A. That has a lot to do with the sensibilities of the musicians who are playing. That's the composition. You pick the musicians you want to play with that know exactly what you're talking about, where to let the song go and create something in the moment, then where and how to bring it back to make it some kind of recognizable music, so people can hold on to it and you can play it again.

The words to these songs were penned by Robert Hunter, and I think these are some of the best works he's done for many years. There has to be a setting for those words, and that's where the songs come in. All the transitions in between, dancing with the music in real time, is when the magic happens, and of course, that's what you always court on a nightly basis. You have to set the stage for the magic, and if you do that with a combination of songs, we'll say that's order. Then you go to chaos, and back and forth. That's what the ebb and flow of music is about for me.

Q. Your nonperforming passions are centered around music as well. Can you tell me about your initiative to promote drumming for healing?

A. We know that music, rhythm, sound, controlled vibrations affect brain wave function. What we don't know is exactly how it affects it, how we can repeat that on a daily basis and make these feelings that we sometimes get from music available so that it becomes medicine. That's what science is now delving into, how the brain works before, during and after an auditory experience.

That's the most exciting frontier in music now. Playing's a lot of fun, but the neurological applications of music and rhythm for Alzheimer's, dementia, all the motor impairment diseases will be affected once the code has been broken. Read Oliver Sacks' book "Musicophilia," it talks about this very thing.

Q. You're also part of a larger effort to preserve recordings that are in danger of disappearing.

A. We've been recording sounds in the field since 1890. The whole history of recorded music lies in these archives, whether it be the Smithsonian or the Library of Congress or attics or basements around the world. They are decomposing because the medium on which they've been recorded is losing its life, so you have to find that music and digitize it before it completely turns to dust.

The music I found from pre-World War II Bali and Indonesia (released in 1994 by Rykodisc as "Music for the Gods: The Fahnestock South Sea Expedition, Indonesia") was ripped away from them by the war. When it was given back by the Endangered Music Project, they started practicing this music that was only spoken about by their grandfathers. It became a rare and important cultural artifact that was given back to them finally after all these years.

Q. That seems to go back to the healing thing, helping people come back together after the trauma of war.

A. Folk music, not art music, is all about that. Some of it's secular, some of it's just passing time of day or talking about their life. But much of it is sacred music. It's their prayers. These are like talking books, so they contain thousands of years of evolution. It's not just a song, it's what the song means. It's a badge of identity for a culture.