Mickey Hart: Planet Drum Adventures

Mickey Hart wears a lot of hats during a Planet Drum concert.

He wails on a suspended set of bells, then leads the musical parade with a booming surdo. He is digital programmer, musical enabler, and cheerleader empowering his comrades. He’s an environmental spokesman and an ethnomusicologist. He’s a teacher, a player, and a hell-raiser. And in the middle of a stage crammed full of drums and folks who know what to do with them, Mickey Hart is jumping up and down with childlike abandon, performing music from Planet Drum’s latest release, Supralingua.

Two things are clear looking at the career of the forty—eight-year-old Hart. One, he likes hat—wearing. And two, he is a dedicated rhythmist. Hart was born in New York and touched at an early age by the music of Tito Puente and Machito. His family’s move to the West Coast gave Mickey the chance to become a second drummer in The Grateful Dead, and that band gave him the space to explore his passion—the drums of the world.

Mickey saw the historic Grateful Dead tour of Egypt as a chance to record, and he took his field recording equipment into remote locations to capture the music and sounds of everyday life of indigenous people. As producer of Ryko’s The World series, Hart released The Spirit Cries in 1993, a compilation of endangered sounds from the Nubian Desert to the Arctic Circle, recorded by various anthropologists and ethnomusicologists in Colombia, Peru, Belize, Panama, and elsewhere. As well as dusting off the Library Of Congress sonic archives, he has gone into his own rich vault of field tapes of Great Lakes Indians and Tibetan monks, and produced percussionists Babatunde Olatunji and Hamza El Din for numerous other titles in the series. Hart even went to Washington, DC and testified to US senators about endangered musics and the healing powers of music.

Hart was at the helm of the Diga Rhythm Band in 1976, and he and Grateful Dead drumming partner Bill Kreutzman built the percussion rig called The Beast that was featured on the soundtrack to the film Apocalypse Now and in Dead shows for years after. Later he led the Rhythm Devils (a preview of Planet Drum, with Kreutzman, Flora Purim, Airto, and other guests) in the early 1980s.

Hart’s first Planet Drum album spent nearly half of 1991 atop the World Music charts, and won a Grammy Award for Best World Music album. His first book, Drumming On The Edge Of Magic, has sold nearly 100,000 copies, and he followed that up by writing Planet Drum: A Celebration Of Percussion & Rhythm. In 1995 he formed Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box, a world-groove band with a gospel vocal touch. And his latest Planet Drum CD, Supralingua (meaning”beyond words”), is a stone-solid mix of groove and wordless voice, featuring Giovanni Hidalgo, Zakir Hussain, David Garibaldi, Sikiru Adepoju, Chalo Eduardo, Airto, and others. A bonus CD includes retakes of several of the numbers by contemporary mix masters like Loop Guru, Meat Beat Manifesto, Richie Hawtin, and The Eye.

During 1998, Mickey toured as part of The Other Ones (featuring The Dead’s Bob Weir and Phil Lesh), and a new live album culled from those shows has just been released. But it’s pretty clear Hart is not satisfied just being an Other One. Of all the surviving members of The Grateful Dead, planet drummer Hart may have the strongest feeling that what he’s doing is important, and that there is serious work yet to be done.

RT: You’ve been a sort of percussion ambassador in your career, bringing drums into the mainstream.

MH: Well, we all know what rhythm is. We know that in this rhythm culture the primacy of rhythm is here. And we know that this next century is going to be a rhythm century, that’s not a secret. Listen to modern music it’s—all rhythm driven.

RT: And if you listen to hip—hop rhythms you can hear the clave in there.

MH: Right, you can hear the clave almost everywhere. Not only in rock ’n’ roll—Bo Diddley had it, right? That’s a direct, absolute clave. The clave rules, it really does. It’s like a musical totem, a cultural badge of identity as well as a rhythmic landmark. If you know the clave, you know a lot. You can use the clave in a million ingenious ways. Have you ever heard El Negro [Horacio Hernandez]? He’s another interesting hybrid, playing the clave with his left foot and then playing all around it. Amazing.

In this Planet Drum performing band the clave really rules. It’s very strong. We lay heavily on the clave because a lot of it is Afro—Cuban, Yoruban, black diaspora—influenced music. It seems as though I’ve wound up where I started from, because my first real hit of rhythmically compex, powerful rhythms was the Latin music of Tito Puente and Machito. And now I’m back to that, pretty much where I started from.

RT: Heavy into the Afro—Cuban?

MH: Yeah, I find them to be the most powerful rhythms on the planet. So it’s not really surprising to wind up here, enjoying and being able to relax in the clave.

RT: Did you hear your first Afro—Cuban music growing up in New York?

MH: Yeah, on the streets. Everybody was playing out in their backyards, on their porches and their patios, and dancing. That was a big thing in new York back then. And the New York “after hours” clubs in the ’50s—that’s where the music of Caribbean took hold in America. That was the dance of choice, and the music of choice, in New York. All the musicians, no matter what they played, enjoyed the Latin scene. That was the big thing happening back then.

RT: You also had a rudimental drum background, thanks in no small part to your parents, who were classically trained.

MH: That’s correct. I grew into that. I inherited that. But you can’t dance to rudimental drums, and I loved to dance. So my dance music of choice was Latin music. The music influenced The Grateful Dead and all the popular music of the day.

RT: I just reread an interview you did in 1981, and even at that point you already had a big interest in instruments from beyond your shores.

MH: All of the rhythms that we have here in America came from Africa. They’re all part of the black diaspora. Slave trade brought us all these powerful rhythms. It brought the backbeat from the Yoruban Nigerian West African traditions. It came through Bahia, up through Central America by the Caribbean, and after the Haitian revolution in the 1700s it worked its way up to New Orleans. Then the river took it all the way up, to Chicago, New York, Kansas City. And that’s how the blues and rock ’n’ roll were born. And Planet Drum is into the roots of that—that’s why I went back to it. I mean, The Grateful Dead was a blues band. With all of the American music, all the rock ’n’ roll started out as blues—based bands. But I went back further than that. I went back to the Yoruban chants and the Afro—Cuban spore. I find it to be a real soul music that is irresistible.

RT: And The Grateful Dead was a band that allowed, even encouraged, you to grow in all those directions.

MH: Yeah, it was interesting in that respect. It was a spawning ground for world music. It was a world music band, and it allowed the input of all these musics: classical, blues, Indian, jazz, R&B, and then the world influence and world rhythms—even the more obscure rhythms from out there. The band didn’t reject it—you know, like a transplant; we added a new organ to the body and it just took it in without rejection. So it was a very healthy organism in that respect.
It was a great place to cultivate and nurture a new musical and rhythmic geography. Because if you look at music—if you think of the musical tradewinds that helped The Grateful Dead to evolve—there were no limits. There are no limits to music. Music doesn’t know geographical boundaries. It doesn’t know where the borders are. It’s blind to that. It’s blind to gender. It’s blind to race. It’s blind to age, That’s the wonderful thing about music.

RT: As you were hearing this great music in New York, did you begin playing percussion or drumset?

MH: I started on a drum pad, then I went to a single snare drum. Then I went to a drumset—a simple set. Then I started picking up guiros, bongos, claves. These were my instruments of choice. I remember going to the beach and playing bongos, and those were the days of beach parties. We would light fires, and anybody who had rhythm. . . See, it attracted the chicks. Girls, that’s what it was all about. That’s what drumming and music was all about back then. It was a socializing thing. Music allows one to survive, to duplicate, replicate, reproduce. It attracts women, and men and women get together over this. I was a very small, frail kid, so that was a way I could compete with the big jocks. I became big like they were once I had a drum in my hand. I realized this early on. You didn’t have to be very smart, you just had to have a drum. So I would supply the rhythm and they would dance, and I would be part of the scene. That’s how that worked. I also wouldn’t get beat up by the big guys. [laughs]

RT: It was a community builder.

MH: It was a community—building thing, indeed it was a way for us to group, to socialize, and to come together as a culture. We were finding ourselves in a rhythmic sense here in the West. Remember, in the West it wasn’t a rhythm world that we lived in. We were born into a world of melody and harmony, and we were just inheriting European music here. We were just wallowing in the vestiges of old European art music or whatever, polkas and all kinds of cockamamie stuff that wasn’t ours, wasn’t American, had nothing to do with us. So we were trying to create, unknowingly, a new music, using the instruments of the diaspora and the Afro—Cuban instruments.

The only real American drumming invention is the traps. That was truly one of the greatest of the American musical inventions—the trap drums. We took instruments from China, from Turkey, from all over the world, and made them into the traps, from the word “contraption.” And we used it in the theater to accompany the silent movies. That was strictly an American invention.

We inherited the military drum from the British. The drums of the Caribbean were brought here from Africa. We just combined different instruments and called them our own. But you couldn’t take it everywhere. The thing about these other instruments was that they were portable. You can take claves anywhere, you can take bongos, a conga, shakers, caxixi, shekere—any of these things you can walk with.

These were portable instruments where you would be able to move from fire to fire, build a rhythm, and then move on.

It was interesting. Here were all these white guys playing rhythm instruments for the first time. So it was a novelty back then. Most of the people that were playing rhythm instruments were Puerto Rican or Cuban or black, not white. White guys didn’t play dance drums, the big band stuff. There were only a few of them—Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa. Other guys came from different rhythm cultures. The Africans were rhythm cultures, and Puerto Ricans and Cubanos and Brazilians, rhythm cultures. Different. We weren’t from that. So here we were being infused by these hot syncopated rhythms, and whoa—this really caught our soul and imagination and gave us a new groove. A new day needs a new groove, and so it was a perfect place for this rhythmic entertainment to take place. We didn’t know what we were doing, nor did we care. We just knew it felt good. The birth of a music is always like that. You’re not thinking about it, you’re just dancing to it and feeling it.

RT: Is it important to get back to the rudiments of each instrument, or is the magic more in finding your own way on it?

MH: Both. It’s a two—fold process. First you have to develop the skill to play the instrument. Then you’ve got to find out what you want the instrument to sound like and what you sound like on the instrument.

You’ve got to be able to entrain that instrument. You’ve got to find its voice. There has to be a connection between you and the instrument, not that you’re just holding it in your hands or putting it between your legs. You’ve got to be able to take the skill that you learned from the traditional performers, which they’ve inherited from thousands of years, and build on that. You take what you can from that and then develop your own personal style. That’s where the power comes from, the energy and the enjoyment of the instrument, not from copping somebody’s style. That’s a small payoff. The idea is to let your personality come through your instrument. That’s the goal, and that’s the power. If you sound like yourself, you’ve succeeded as an artist.

So you have to get the skill and then you’ve got to be able to forget all that. Next you must develop your own nuance, play your own groove, and make your own rhythm, or else the other stuff is just like punching the clock, and it’s not transcendent in nature. As a musician the idea is to uplift your spirit, because if you don’t uplift your spirit, you won’t be able to lift anybody else’s. If you can’t move in and out of the trance, you can’t expect to take people there. It’s a very important factor, and that takes more than skill.

RT: But the skill has got to be there. . .

MH: You have to have a certain amount of it, but you don’t have to have an enormous amount. Take the drum circle-ists, for example. What they’re trying to do is not a skill thing. It’s more a listening thing. It’s like being aware. It’s a consciousness—building thing. It’s a community thing, it’s a sharing of rhythm. They don’t know about guaguanco in the drum circle, there’s no need for that knowledge. All you need is to be able to hear the person next to you and be conscious of the groove and let the sound drive you and create something of great beauty with other similar—minded people. And make it loud, so the auditory driving really sets in, so your system really gets the full impact of the rhythmic pattern. You entrain, you get in the flow state, and you attain rapture. And once you’re in a rapturous state, then you achieve the goal of the groove. That’s what the groove affords you, the rhythm and rapture. And that leads to trance and to the ecstatic state.

In drum circles we can find intramural players really enjoying the power of rhythm, without having to spend ten years learning the instrument. It might lead to someone getting greater skill and becoming a professional rhythmist, but I look at that as more intramural, more civilian—oriented, which is good.

RT: The concept of double drummers, like The Dead had, is kind of an East—West concept, in that you’re playing the trap sets, but the same kind of listening to each other is required.

MH: Yeah, it’s about coming together, communing. it’s about the group mind. That’s what this whole thing is about when you have multiples. It’s to attain a group consciousness, and that is very powerful. Somehow when you get two or more people playing a rhythm in a groove it becomes more than the parts. Listen to a great drum section, whether it be a rudimental section, or a great Latin percussion section, or a rock ‘n’ roll section. The power is manifest multiple times more than the parts. The group is what’s sought, not necessarily the artistic invention. Yet I’ve been in some drum circles that have been rhythmically stunning. Not many, but some.

The thing is, they’re unique creations. No one totally has control of a drum circle, really. So what you’re doing is creating something of great beauty, something unique, just for that moment, never to be repeated again. Everybody feels a part of ownership in it, and that’s what makes it valuable—not necessarily the musical integrity, but that something was created from nothing, and then it’s gone. That’s the payoff for the drum circles. And of course there’s the obvious stuff—community, teamwork. Drum circle knows no gender, it doesn’t know how much you make a year, how tall you are, how fat or skinny you are, good-looking or ugly or any of that. Drum circle circle is a great equalizer, as opposed to other more entertainment—oriented endeavors.

RT: I thought that the work you did on “A Call To Nations” for the opening of the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta really captured the human spirit.

MH: It’s what the Olympics were all about: coming together in rhythm, the tribes of the world coming together as one. It was a beautiful statement. At least the first twelve minutes were.

RT: What was your thinking when you put together this version of Planet Drum for Supralingua?

MH: I had a different vision for this one from the others. This one was partially composed when they showed up, and we had sequences, and it was going to be more electronic-oriented. I wanted to mix the archaic percussion with state-of-the-art processing, and then I wanted to wed it to powerful vocal chants that didn’t necessarily have strict literal translation. That’s what we call “supralingua”, beyond language. Maybe this is what we did before speech, or when we first got together before we codified language.

When I was a kid I used to listen to the Utori rain forest music, the pygmy stuff, and loved it—the Folkways records. And I always wanted to do a record like that. On those records the artists of course must have known what they were saying, but I didn’t know they knew. So I took it as. . .well, I didn’t know what the word “supralingua” was back then—but I thought they were working in the supralingua. So I always wanted to do that with a real rhythm band. So that was the direction I took it in.

Every day we performed these composed pieces, and then we opened the microphones up for free play. Some of these compositions were just jams that I cut up, and we made compositions out of them. So the group came for a couple weeks and then left, and I took over and I edited it and mixed it.

RT: Nearly all the songs are listed as group compositions.

MH: I leave enough room in all of the bits  for group composition. I try to compose just enough to give direction and maintain the vision. But it’s not a jam. We only have a couple weeks together, not months, so there has got to be some direction. And then, credit is an easy thing to give, because it’s earned. They all contribute a unique part that I can’t write for them. It’s not something that you say, “You play this and you play that.” So you give them compositional credit.

RT: Listening to all the power of “Angola,” I’m thinking, “Percussion, bass, and vocals, that’s about all you need.”

MH: That is about all you need, baby, that’s what I was thinking. That’s exactly what I was thinking. That’s heaven to me. It’s not for everybody, but for anybody who thinks like that, this is for them.

RT: Tell me about your RAMU [Random Access Musical Universe], the device you’re using to bring out your exotic sounds. Is it some sort of super sampler?

MH: [laughing] No, it’s not a super sampler. But it is. I like to think of it more like a digital workstation. More like a sound droid. A robot, really. It’s a computer. It’s got high-performance samplers, a lot of processing, and a digital computerized board with total recall as part of it. It can be accessed by a keyboard or by pads. And it contains all of my samples that I’ve gathered over the years, my personal percussion samples, my sounds. But with RAMU you’re able to play it at volume. You can play a balifon real loud, or crushed glass, or wine glasses, or didgeridoo. I can create running melodies with it or transpose sounds up or down octaves. It’s a very sophisticated droid. In the future other percussionists will have things like this. It’s sort of an instrument of the future. And I have drums around it, so I get the best of both worlds. I have acoustic drums and I have RAMU as part of my setup.

RT: Is this something that’s on the market?

MH: Naaaw, it’s not on the market.

RT: But the pieces are on the market if you can put it together.

MH: Yeah, if you can afford it. And if you spend enough time programming it. I mean, there’s no sound in here that I haven’t made. That sound library is not available to anybody, and it’s not like you buy something with the Yamaha sounds or the Roland sounds. There’s none of those on there.

RT: So this has got a lot of your NAGRA [high—tech field recorder] captured sounds. . .

MH: Yeah, and my collection, which is formidable. It took me years to sample all of this, and eventually I put it into RAMU and designed it. And it’s a MIDIed instrument, of course. Someday there will be other RAMUs for the public, for working drummers; it’s just inevitable. It allows you to paint with all of these colors. Plus you have all this processing—reverb, delay, multiple instruments. I occasionally have four different sets of steel pans playing simultaneously. Or a xylophone and an udu combination. You never could get that live and never could play it at 105—110 dB without feeding back. Got a berimbau, and it’s right in your face at 110 dB.

RT: On “Wheel Of Time,” is that high vocal part something that you’re manipulating on keyboard?

MH: Yeah, that’s actually Zakir Hussain’s voice, sampled and processed severelybackwards, inside out, upside down.

RT: That’s a great track, something I’d like to wake up to every morning.

MH: Yeah, you’re not the only one. I try to step outside a little bit and take it to the next step. This is the new music. I like to think of it as an adventure in rhythmscape. It’s not the drum solo anymore, it’s like drums playing together in ensemble with voice. Supralingua looks in both directions: It looks back to the black diaspora, to its roots, to the archaic world, and at the same time it looks forward into the digital domain. So I’m looking in two directions simultaneously while standing on the mount. This is a golden age in music, especially for the percussionist, for the artist on the edge anyway.

RT: Then there’s a song called “Frog Dance,” which is another favorite—just to hear you wailing on those bells.

MH: That was just one live take with Giovanni scatting.

RT: And Garibaldi playing a straight funk beat underneath.

MH: He’s a great drummer, a real funky guy. It was a good scene, you know. A good group.

RT: Then hearing Giovanni wailing on “Dama Wu”. . .

MH: Yeah, Giovanni is a powerhouse. He really came out on this record. He dominated on this, he was really there.

RT: And the sounds on “Indoscrub” are out there.

MH: First of all, that little laugh is my daughter’s voice. And that scrub stuff—that was the Mystery Box album cover that I scrubbed in time with the song, and got that “whhsshh” sound. That was out there.

RT: Do you have a home studio where you can do a lot of this work?

MH: Yes. I’ve had a studio since 1969, never been without it. It’s important—that’s where I get to do all this stuff. I experiment a lot to come up with these ideas. I have my own workstation and I work every day. I go to the gym, do my yoga, and I go to work.

RT: Is the San Francisco Bay area a good place for a percussionist?

MH: Sure, it’s a hotbed. There’s a lot of Afro—Cuban going on, and a lot of great powerful rhythm stuff in the city. That’s what’s really happening.

RT: The more music you hear from around the world, are you struck more by the similarities or the differences in the music?

MH: The similarities, yeah. That’s always amazed me, to hear how similar things are, the influences of one culture on another culture, unbeknownst to either culture. How things have traveled. Once we started commerce and trade with other countries, we didn’t just trade silks and spices and stuff, we traded musical ideas. So music has been fused for centuries. Every culture calls a certain music their own, but it’s the world’s music.

RT: On each track on the record you’re playing a different combination of percussion instruments. How do you decide where to go? Is it always starting from a clean slate, from scratch?

MH: Right. I try to be inventive and never repeat myself. I try to advance the craft, my own personal craft, and also answer the call of the dream. A lot of the stuff I come up with originates in the dream space. You have to trust your dreams. Dreams are the connection to your subconscious, where all the good stuff is. If you can listen to that voice and remember your dreams and play your dreams, then you’ll be probing your real being.

RT: Do you actually dream of music in a literal sense?

MH: I’m a lucid dreamer. I do a lot of dreaming every night. And a lot of times my best ideas happen in the waking hours, in the early morning. I write them down or I record them immediately, and I have techniques to remember my dreams. I do most of my business there.

RT: You’ve been playing with The Other Ones. Tell me what’s going on with that group.

MH: Nothing. It’s on the shelf. I had a great time. We said we were going to do it, we did it, and it’s over for now. When we get together again we’ll decide its fate. It’s Planet Drum that I’m interested in now. That’s what I really want to do. I’ve already done The Other Ones, and The Grateful Dead—that’s great. I like to do that, but Planet Drum is my love.

RT: You’ve had a pretty fascinating career so far—there’s a lot of scope and substance to it.

MH: Thank you, but it’s not over. We’re  in midstream.


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