Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum
by John Noyd
the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart and Planet Drum on the cover of Maximum Ink in October 1998
To say world percussionist Mickey Hart is embarking on a new adventure is like saying the Pope is going to church this Sunday. Author, student, artist, composer, Mickey’s musical curiosity in all things cosmic has produced seventeen discs for Rykodisc’s “World” series, two books on the history and mythology of rhythm and countless shows and solos. His latest disc, “Supralingua,” continues to explore new worlds with a strong bent on digital technology and sampling. While best known for his association with the Grateful Dead, it soon became evident that the only past he was interested in conjuring happened long before there was any Haight-Asbury scene.
MAXIMUM INK: You’ve just started a month long tour with your group, Planet Drum, how does it feel being out on the road, leading a band, back in touch with an
MICKEY HART: It’s great. More fun than I deserve. I’m feeling overly lucky, just wondering what’s going to go wrong. You know when everything goes right? I’m waiting for the bomb to drop. But, really, it couldn’t be better. The crowds are great, standing up on their feet, real ecstatic. We’re giving them two hours and they still want more. It’s like a feast. The rhythm is right and when the rhythm is right, life is good. I guess that’s what this is
MI: You collaborated with some heavy hitters on your new CD. Is it hard to put together a touring band that doesn’t stand in the shadow of Zakir Hussain, Sikiru Adepoju or Giovanni Hidalgo?
MH: Sometimes when you put all those maestros in a room, you don’t get that groove you’re looking for. The people in this band have played for twenty - thirty years learning their skills. This group is like a rhythm machine that’s really greased. There’s eight of us and it’s not just guys, this is a different group. We’ve got ladies, three of them. We’re giving the drum back to the ladies. We believe that the first drummers were women. We came from Mother-Goddess cultures and we’re starting to find evidence of these large cylinder drums in the Neolithic era. This is the first real evidence of us playing on membranes. Men took it back to the war drum, but the women built a rhythm to bring people together. That was what those fertility cults were about and that’s what rhythm and music is all about.
MI: You’re carrying instruments from all over the world on tour. You have a semi full of percussion. Do you find that the band leans towards African rhythms on one night then Carribean rhythms on another? It must be hard to mix so many
MH: I was looking at this band a few weeks ago and realized it is really a model of the African Diaspora music. The music that came to us from the Yoruba tradition in Nigeria, that passed into South America and crept up to the Caribbean, then New Orleans. This band tips its hat to those traditions, but adds an electronic zone to it. We’re looking at two directions simultaneously, back to the ancient, archaic rhythms of the saints and looking ahead into the digital domain. A double edge sword really. Rhythmically speaking - its fantastic!
MI: You’ve been investigating different world music for decades now, but it’s gotten a new life recently with techno dance music and rave culture. “Supralingua,” even comes with a bonus disc of remixes. Is gratifying to see an appreciation for something you’ve been interested in for
MH: We inherited the art music of Europe, but all the original music we have in America - these chants and these rhythms that I’m playing now - really spawned the back beat of the blues and rock and roll and big band and jazz. I look at it as musical trade winds that came to us on the expendable bodies of slaves when they were brought over to the Americas. They came and brought their music, the instrument changed slightly, they Catholicized the names of the saints, but their music remained a constant. The Mississippi River had a big part in this once it hit New Orleans. Haiti had a revolution in the late seventeen hundreds and when it hit everyone escaped to New Orleans. When that happened, the river took it to Kansas City, Chicago. The seeds were planted and the music you hear on the radio is a direct descendent of those rhythms. .
MI: Why is Africa the cradle of rhythms and not some other place?
MH: When the ice melted around 10,000 BC the Indo-Europeans came down following the herds working their way down to the Sub-Sahara. The Sub-Saharan became a culture unto itself, a very religious spiritual based possession trance religion. That’s why it’s the cradle of rhythm. In Africa, all of the dance and all of the music is inseparable. For every dance there is a rhythm for every rhythm there is a dance. Community and rhythm were also inseparable. Strong communities had strong rhythms and good music. Their music became their link to the other world, to the spiritual domain. They were going for the trance. That’s what they were after. The one real way of getting tranced is auditory driving rhythmic stimulus. When the brain hears the rhythm, it goes into this altered state, it’s a raising of consciousness. You know when you hear a good tune, a good groove, you know what happens. It brings a higher, more elevated state of awareness. That is what this is all about, except these ancient cultures used it on a daily basis. They practiced trance daily. I look at it like a rhythm yoga, or sound yoga. Music to me is a form of meditation, it is not simply entertainment for me, it’s a way of life.
MI: You have long advocated the healing powers of rhythm, forming the Rhythm For Life Foundation, even appearing before a Senate Subcommittee. How do you take trance meditation and turn it into a concert?
MH: The trick is first to take yourself from here to there and bring it back again. If you do that to yourself and then grab the audience and take them with you then you have succeeded in creating a worthwhile musical experience. A lot of the show is improvisation. I look at it like a rhythm scape. Before we go on we get in a circle and hold hands, say a prayer, bring the spirit down amongst ourselves. That’s the first thing you have to do, if you don’t have the spirit you can’t give it. The whole thing with a great performance is taking the spirit and turning into form. You have to have the spirit in your heart before you go out on to the stage or else you’re just shooting in the dark. That’s the trick, to go to the edge and not go over the edge because there is a difference between the trancer and the trancee, and we’re trancers. If we get entranced ourselves, if we go too far, we lose the facility to play. So we go right to the edge and then pull back. Our responsibility is to nurture the groove and make sure that groove stays hard and doesn’t dissipate. We also play the game of going right to the edge and try to ride it all night. That’s the trick, to go without losing it. It’s surfing, it’s rhythm surfing and it’s a wild experience. When we’re done we are very centered. We are very calm and very high. It’s a rejuvenating feeling and a life giving force. You can find a lot of meaning in life at that point, at that moment before the real world starts
closing in on you.
MI: One last question. The name of your new disc, “Supralingua,” means, “beyond language.” If the music is beyond language, how do you find names for your tunes?
MH: I don’t have the idea of what it’s about when I’m going into it. I sit back and reflect on it. What image does this conjure? A lot of the stuff that we do isn’t fully formed until we’ve done it. I sit back . I process it. What jumps out at me, what is the spirit of this song? It’s all over the map. It really doesn’t come from any one place. It’s a subliminal thing, subconscious. I dream about it. I do a lot of dreaming. A lot of this “composition” happens in the dream state. All the good stuff comes from down there. I listen to my dreams. I remember my dreams. I practice lucid dreaming. I also draw from my studies over the years. They have given me some insights and an appreciation for the rituals and the sacredness of music around the world.
Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum
CD: Supralingua Record Label: Rykodisc
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