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Sept. 16, 2004



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On the Edge with the Dead's Rhythm Master: Mickey Hart
Headline -- Drums of Peace

Photo of Mickey Hart

MICKEY HART [photo at left] HAS A MISSION IN LIFE: "SPREADING THE rhythm seed," as he puts it. "Rhythm connects us to ourselves and to other people. It's the vibration, stupid. Without the right vibrations we're in chaos or we're fighting," said Hart in a recent conversation from his Sebastopol studio.

His "day job" as one of two drummers for the Grateful Dead, now known simply as the Dead, has given him the opportunity to sow that rhythm seed far and wide, often setting tens or even hundreds of thousands of music fans vibrating in unison.

But this weekend he has something different in mind, something he calls "Drums for Peace." Working in conjunction with the international music and dance event, Earthdance, whose aim is to move towards peace by getting thousands of people dancing together to one song, Hart has laid plans for the world's largest drum circle, with anywhere from 3,500-5,000 drummers playing in one place.

"Ritual and rapture, a rush of group noise, group rhythm, raising individual and group power, sending it out around the world," he explained, in an energetic rush of words.

Hart has arranged for Remo drums to donate 3,500 drums for the occasion. "After it's all over [the participants] will have the option of giving the drums back to [be used] in the music in school programs in California," said Hart.

Part of the plan is to document the event and submit it for a Guinness World Record. "It's held by the Turks at 3,140," Hart noted. "They broke the record, which was in the 2,000s. We didn't break the record, but we had the largest in 1991 with 1,800 -- the biggest at that time -- it wasn't validated but it was the largest."

In fact, in 1992, not long after the '91 drum circle, this reporter interviewed Hart about plans for a giant drum circle to be held in Arcata at Humboldt State. At the time, Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia was ill and the band had cancelled a number of shows leaving Hart with room to do his own thing. Garcia recovered, the band resumed its tour and the event never happened. "I never got to it," said Hart, looking back. "I'm kind of busy."

Truth is, he's been "kind of busy" for some time now. When we spoke he had just returned from the Dead's "Wave that Flag" summer tour, which as any Deadhead will recognize, took its name from the song, "U.S. Blues."

This time the message was a bit different, and according to Hart, simple. "Go out there and fucking vote. Vote while you have a chance. This is probably the most important election of your lifetime and if you want to take America back -- which is kind of patriotic -- you'd better get it on now. That's what "Wave that Flag" is about, that and also about waving your personal flag. Beyond being patriotic and taking back what's left of America, stand up for what you believe in."

And when he's not out making music, he's working on something he calls "The Anaconda: the information snake," a massive collection of data about world rhythm that so far has resulted in four books: Drumming at the Edge of Magic, Planet Drum, Spirit into Sound: The Magic of Music, and most recently, Songcatchers: In Search of the World's Music, written in collaboration with National Geographic.

Eventually he will complete a really big book on rhythm. "I'm on it," he said. "I've been working on it for years. It's a massive work, a magnum opus. I've collected the information, put it into binary code; it's data, metadata, data about data. And now I'm about ready to get serious writing the narrative. I'm seriously into it."

His search for the rhythm story has taken him far and wide recording music, and revisiting the work of others. His Songcatchers book examines the ethnographers who left a legacy of recordings in the vaults of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.

"They realized that these songs were more than just sounds," said Hart, speaking passionately about the "ethnos" who came before him. "The songs they found were histories of great cultures, thousands of years of evolution, and they recognized that [the music] was falling off the edge of the world, that there was only a breath in time, a moment to gather these things. They were hell-bent of catching these songs -- that's why we call them songcatchers.

And Hart has joined their ranks. "I've been all around the world looking into everything from Koranic chanting to Native American music. And it's not just recordings of rhythms -- it's our dance with the vibratory world around us and where we're heading as a species in our dance with the infinite, which is the rhythmic origin of the universe."

The Earthdance United Beats of Peace Festival runs simultaneously in 130 cities in 50 countries with the hub in Northern California at Black Oak Ranch from Friday, Sept. 17 until Sunday Sept. 19. In addition to Drums of Peace with Planet Drum, the event in Laytonville features a diverse array of music on five stages, including Ozomatli, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Blackalicious, Steve Kimock and the Everyone Orchestra, Midnite, Panjea, Joanne Rand and many more.

The international Prayer for Peace takes place at 4 p.m. Saturday; Drums of Peace follows immediately after. Both will be broadcast live on the Internet along with Earthdance events worldwide, with streaming services supplied by Arcata-based Streamguys.

For a full schedule of the local event and the international dances, go to For a history of the Earthdance event see "Dancing for Peace," an interview with Earthdance founder Chris Deckker from the Sept. 18, 2003 North Coast Journal. Bob Doran's 1992 interview with Hart is a related story, see below. Mickey Hart is online at

Bob Doran


This Saturday, Sept. 20, people in over 130 cities in 50 countries will join together for Earthdance 2003, dancing for peace in a world torn by war and strife. The hub of this international event, "The United Beats of Peace Festival," is here in Northern California, running all weekend at the Black Oak Ranch near Laytonville.

"The event is actually in its seventh year now," explained Earthdance founder Chris Deckker. "It began when I was living in England; it was a vision I had for uniting the music and dance culture as a vehicle for world peace."

Originally from Australia, Deckker is a percussionist whose musical journey began with Latin American and African music. In the mid-'90s, he relocated to London where he began investigating what he calls "a fusion of electronica with ancient rhythms."

While running dance clubs, he joined forces with synthesizer player Alex Newman and founded a band, Medicine Drum. Part of the idea was to explore the healing power of rhythm.

"People were dancing until 6 o'clock in the morning and having this incredible experience on the dance floor that can only be described as shamanic. And there was an extremely strong level of community connection. We took that and distilled it into a philosophy. We saw it as a new paradigm where people joined together once again to dance all night," said Deckker in a call from his current home base in Oregon.

As electronica evolved, Medicine Drum moved towards creating more organic live music merging synthesized sounds with primal tribal rhythms. At the same time Deckker was thinking about the music as a tool for raising social consciousness.

"Using music as a vehicle for positive change has been my life work, and that led me to the idea of creating a one-world party, where at one moment in time everybody could listen to the same track and feel that same vibration in music at the same time, which is the whole focal point of the Earthdance concept. So at 12 midnight London time, no matter where you are at any Earthdance party, you're listening to the same thing. In California that will be 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon."

The track? "It's a five-minute ambient piece of music with a spoken word universal prayer that has been translated into different languages. I wrote the words; my Medicine Drum partner, Alex, composed the music in England all those years ago. We've been using it ever since."

At first Earthdance events were mainly in the electronica vein - and the Northern California "Global Festival for Peace" will include a large dome with music by some of the world's top dance DJs including Toby Marks of Banco De Gaia - but as Deckker explained, "Now it's expanded. We've got musicians from all across the world, from many, many genres getting together at the Black Oak Ranch. It's conscious artists coming together to show that there are no boundaries in music, which is intrinsically a powerful medium for spreading the message of peace."

The line-up for Earthdance does in fact cross many genre lines with dozens of bands on several stages. Alongside the neo-tribal sounds of Medicine Drum, Lost at Last and Panjea, there's musical activist Michael Franti and Spearhead using hip hop and soul to spread the word, space music by Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Trance Zen Dance, the liquid guitar sounds of jam-master Steve Kimock, jazzy jams from the Slip, reggae from Big Mountain, Midnite and Groundation, and sharp political hip hop from the Coup.

The Southern Humboldt film collective Earth Films is organizing an Eco-activist Film Festival for Friday night. Other local participants include activist songwriter Joanne Rand from Orleans, Arcata's Something Different and SoHum's the Non-Prophets.

According to Deckker the common thread in the acts booked is a commitment to social consciousness. "If you look at society, music has been the spearhead of many revolutions. In the '60s music was a major force in the consciousness revolution. I think that's happening again as well. There's a resurgence of music asking questions: Where are we with our lives? What's happening with society? What's happening with our government? All of this is reflected in the music of our times and musicians are becoming more conscious and using music as a vehicle for expressing that consciousness."

Does music have to power change the world?

"Music has the power to open your heart - and when you heart is open you can feel the feel the positive vibration of change within yourself. And then that can inspire you to be a better person in your life, a better person in your community," said Deckker.

"Music has been a major force since indigenous times. When we were just a tribal society there was always the element of music galvanizing he community into a moment. It might have been the full moon ritual then, but now it's a dance party or going to a club. It's a very intrinsic element, it's still present: People come together, they join as a community, they dance together and feel a sense of community power. And that is a powerful force."

On the Edge with the Dead's Rhythm Master: Mickey Hart

You probably know Mickey Hart as the percussionist for the Grateful Dead. That's his "day job," which he says, "makes it possible to fully live out my life of imagination." His "enthusiasms" (as he calls them) include a major information gathering project on rhythm which, so far, has resulted in two books, Drumming on the Edge of Magic and Planet Drum. He has made a number of albums on his own, including two that accompany his books. October 11th [1992] he is scheduled to be in Arcata leading a large drummers' circle, an event coordinated by CenterArts. I spoke to him while he ate his lunch at the Grateful Dead Studios in Marin County.

Bob Doran: What do you do?
Mickey Hart:
I share sound. I'm a rhythmist. I make rhythmic sound, and I'm a professional entrainer. That's the big picture.

BD: What is an entrainer?
It's someone who tries to synchronize and to resonate. I like to do these things. Music is a very special case of entrainment. I accomplish it through drumming - the rhythmic manipulation of noise.

BD: You are usually referred to as a percussionist.
I play percussion instruments; that's my method of entraining.

BD: How is a percussionist different from a drummer?
When you drum, you play a drum: a stretched membrane, a vibrating membrane. Well, the world is made up of a lot of kinds of percussive and concussive sounds. I've explored the quality of a lot of these sounds over the years. So, I percuss. I play other instruments besides membranes; wood, metal, glass...

BD: So you're not limited to drums. In describing the line-up of the Grateful Dead, you would be listed as the percussionist and Bill Kreutzman as the drummer.
That's right, but Bill plays lots of percussion as well. But yeah, the role I've chosen is that of percussionist.

BD: In your book you refer to his "ability to find the beat and lock into it."
Yes! He's very intuitive. He has the animal powers.

BD: You say he "finds the beat." I think of drummers counting off the start of a song, in effect setting the beat. The way you describe it, it's like the beat is there and he discovers it.
It sets you. It drums you. That's the idea; connect with your inner-self with your own body rhythms, not with some common time, where the song should be, or where it could be. It has another kind of relation to the human and the cosmic realities of what you're doing. What I was talking about was consciousness.

BD: You also speak of "the power of the drum." What is that?
The power of the drum is the sound that it sets up, the groove that it makes. It allows us to dance and also to travel to other places, to other consciousnesses. That's what the power is all about. It's an instrument of great power; healing powers, the power to make you dance, and the power to entrain. It's the thing we're encoded for as a species, to find the most efficient way in nature and go with it.

BD: What is "the Edge" you write about, with a capital E?
It's the Edge of different places and different people, strange places. The Edge is where you push to the limits. It's where creativity is found, where real-time art is found. The Edge is the outer limits of your consciousness. When you stretch your consciousness you go into this realm. It could be the sacred - some people call it the sacred. It's where priorities change, things inside you click over from just being yeah yeah, to being something more meaningful and far-reaching. You make a connection. You connect. That's what the Edge is all about. It's a metaphor of course.

BD: Do you see it as a boundary?
Not a boundary, it's just another line to cross. The flow state is at the Edge. Trance is at the Edge; rapture, ecstasy, all of the altered consciousness - focusing when you have an adrenaline rush. When your body is shooting endorphins through it, that's the Edge.

BD: Is that what you try to achieve with your music?
That's what music does. Of course, I'm just a musician trying to achieve that thing that's been there inherent in music forever. It's nothing new. It's just that some people have lost their connection to what music really is. This is a reawakening of archaic techniques.

BD: You're saying that music is...
It's transformational. It's a focusing technique, a way of practicing three-dimensional space. It's a microcosm of what we live in, a true reflection of the matter of the universe. That's why people have such a strong attraction to it.

BD: What about the use of music in society?
Which society?

BD: One of the things I got from your writing is that in modern Western civilization, we have made music a separate thing instead of using it as a day-to-day part of culture.
MH: Right. It's been ripped out. The rituals that have music in them, which are most of the social rituals, have been ripped out. In the West we don't get together and dance and sing together. Mostly it comes to us across the airwaves, on the stereo, on the TV, on a CD. The ritual has been taken out of it. The ritual now is driving a car and getting off listening in your head.

BD: The performer is separated from the audience
You don't participate with a community in music anymore, unless you go to a big rock concert; like I went to the Metallica and Guns 'N Roses last night. That's ritual. They were banging their heads trying to get stress out of their lives. It was a release; it was rhythm and noise; it was very loud, auditory driving at it's finest. Yeah! Those are the rituals that we wind up with. Rituals that used to happen in our living rooms now are in stadiums. That's a big difference in the experience of music. That's what these drum circles are about...


BD: Let's talk about what you're going to do here in Arcata.
It's all about fun. It's about ritual - getting together and sharing sound with your family.

BD: Who will you bring with you?
Some of my friends. Some auditory drivers - we call them drivers. They'll help keep the runaway drums in check.

BD: What's a runaway drum?
People that get caught up in their own world and aren't listening. They violate the rhythm. The drivers will keep it even; keep a certain kind of order. Remember we're playing with chaos, trying to order chaos.

BD: What instruments will you bring?
I don't know yet. It doesn't matter what I'm going to be playing, what matters is that we're all going to be making sound together. Everybody there has to participate; the idea is that it's not a show.

BD: What should people bring?
Anything, their personal percussion if they have any. Anything that makes a sound that they're interested in. If not, drums will be available. You can buy one there. Remo will have a whole line of drums to purchase if you don't have your own. You know, bring a frame drum a simple single membrane drum, nothing fancy, or bring your fanciest instrument if you like. But, the idea is: it's not a "show." It's not a virtuoso performance by me.

BD: It's not a concert.
No, it's not a concert! We're trying to find our own rhythm there. It's a unique event.

BD: Have you done this other places?
Yeah, I've done a couple of them. Each one was so different. They take on a personality of their own because it's a living event. Those people will never come together and will never play like that. It's a special thing. It's something to share with your family. I do it with my family. I should add [the drummer's circle] is not for "musicians." This is not necessarily "music." We're not trying to make music. There'll be nothing fancy about this. It's strictly entrainment, and focus. It's having a good time playing in a big hairy groove.

BD: It sounds exciting.
When you hear 1,800 drummers playing it's something that will shoot your adrenaline through your body. We did one with 1,850 drummers. We could have more at this concert.

BD: You probably haven't heard about it, but there's been some local controversy lately concerning drummer's circles. Groups assemble on the Plaza in Arcata. They bring congas and...
They say it's too loud?

BD: Shopkeepers complain, the mayor complained...
There has been persecution of these drum circles forever. It's thought of as a lesser form, because it makes a lot of noise. It's very strong and powerful and attractive, and it's chaos. It shakes the empires. This is really noise. Rhythm and noise, one of the strongest elements on the planet. Of course the government doesn't like it.

BD: The City Council is thinking about some sort of ban on drums on the Plaza.
They might be able to do that, but they can't stop drumming. They can't stop drum circles - there's nothing illegal. They can pass noise ordinances, but we'll work around them.


BD: On your last album, Planet Drum, you assembled a group of musicians from four continents and four different cultures. Was there any difficulty in getting the ideas to mesh?
Not the ideas. It was more difficult getting everyone in the same place.

BD: The logistics of assembly.
Yeah, getting all the scheduling worked out, you can imagine the horror.

BD: Once you had everyone together...
Piece of cake.

BD: Does this imply rhythm as some kind of universal language?
I'm glad you mentioned that. That's exactly what I am implying. I think I wrote about that (laughs). I think you might be paraphrasing from my book (laughs more).

BD: Perhaps unconsciously...
Okay, well that's exactly right. That's the one thing we can share. We can't share language. We don't share foods. We share rhythm... Any place I go I can play with any musician. There's never a problem. [On the Planet Drum session] most of it was spirit and personality. Everybody had to want to be here and to entrain. The idea was not to play as virtuosos. We were trying to find a new groove. Not necessarily the groove of our ancestors or even who we were, but to bring our experience to this but not to be stiff - to listen to each other and try to find those new rhythms, and have fun. That's the idea.

BD: I think it worked really well. I really like it a lot.
Yeah, you're not the only one. It was really well received.


BD: You are the "executive producer" of a series of recordings called The World from Ryko. What is your role in that company? What do you do?
Well, I record all of them.

BD: You actually make the recordings, hands on?
I do all of this. I don't just push the pen. These are my field recordings from around the world.

BD: This is the stuff you talked about in your book, when you would go out with your Nagra [tape recorder] and...
That and more. The book is history; it was years ago. Now we have the Endangered Music Project from the Library of Congress. It's a treasure trove. We're mining the vaults of the Library of Congress.

BD: You quoted ethnomusicologist/folklorist Alan Lomax. He fears "the cultural greyout" he said, "In another generation nothing will be left but their artifacts packed into metal cabinets at the Smithsonian." So, is this series your way of unpacking some of those cabinets and sharing what you find?
That's what it is. It's music that is on the precipice or has fallen off the precipice of existence. What I'm trying to focus on are the cultures that are endangered with this music, because music and culture go together. You can't have one without the other.

BD: The recordings are from the tribes of the Rainforest?
MH: I'm talking about indigenous people. Like when somebody puts a pipeline through your forest and wipes your whole culture out, and you're standing there in the middle of the 21st century. It's the plight of the Indians that I'm concerned with. This is a good time to expose them for who they are. A time to sing with them, to dance with them, join their pow-wows, and to understand them through their music and their cultures and their rhythms. What's going on now is a resurgence of their own ethnicity. They're getting back into their dance, their singing, their drumming and they invite the world to come and join with them. [The pow-wows] are happening all around. Everyone should take advantage of it.

BD: You also sit on the Board of Directors for the Smithsonian's Folkways label. Is there some connection between that and your Rykodisc series, The World?
They're independent, but they do the same things. We're talking about two separate gigantic institutions. The Folkways collection went to Folklife at the Smithsonian. Over time they will be re-releasing 2,000 titles on CD... We don't know what's in the Library of Congress. It's so deep. It's uncharted territory. It's not like a re-releasing thing. I had to go through 80 hours of Amazon Basin music to come up with one hour. These 80 hours included everything from cylinders - You know the Library of Congress has the first recording ever made, March 1st, 1890 - until the present. They have all these recordings; everything that has been copywritten is there. There are vaults 1/4 mile long of records and tapes.

BD: If everything's there, it must be hard to find what you need.
It's a matter of knowing what you're doing, where you want to go and what you want. These recordings will further the cataloging of the library. The proceeds will go back into the library, and to the descendants of the people who played on the recording. It will also create a public archives for this material. This is important work as far as I'm concerned.


BD: You wrote about your encounters with a group of people involved in ethnomusicology. You called them "the Ethnos." Have you become one of these Ethnos?
I think of self as such, yeah. I'm into the exploring of the Edge. I have a lot of ethnomusicological friends and...

BD: You seem to be pretty active in this yourself. Are you doing more new field recordings or are you overwhelmed with re-archiving the past?
Whenever they come up. It's an ongoing process. It doesn't stop anywhere. It keeps going. I just recorded the San Quentin Mass Choir inside the walls of the prison.

BD: Let's talk about this thing you call "the Anaconda." [The Anaconda is a mass of information about the history of drums and rhythm.] So far the Anaconda has resulted in a book called Planet Drum and another on the making of that book Drumming on the Edge of Magic [also a partial autobiography]. I get the impression that there's lots more of the Anaconda that we haven't seen yet.
You better believe it!

BD: What's the future of the Anaconda?
It's mutated again. It's assuming grid-like proportions. It's become electronic and because of the information, it's so vast. It's leading me into the larger work on rhythm - rhythm as a metaphor for life. That's what's going on now. I'm researching interlocking rhythm worlds. That's where I'm heading. More on this later...

BD: I'm trying to figure out where you find the time to learn and do all this stuff.
I get up early in the morning and I read.

BD: Then sit at your computer?
I lock in on the computers worldwide. We have this thing... My friends are sort of a tribe of hunter/gatherers.

BD: Electronic hunters.
Yeah, yeah, guys like Tom Vennum, Fred Lieberman, guys in Paris. Wherever, there are a few people around who are really interested in exploring these cubbies, these little holes... we talk. This keeps a dialogue moving and keeps it ongoing. If you compartmentalize too much and you don't mix it up intellectually and research wise, not much happens... I just came back from a week in Vermont locked up in a house with Jay Stevens. We went to work on the big picture.

BD: Your next book?
Yeah, this is the big book.

BD: Bigger than the other two...
Oh - big book, big book, big book. It's the book on ants.

BD: On what??
Well, it's like Ants. Did you read the book on ants that won the Pulitzer Prize two years ago. It's the complete book on ants. It's an amazing book. This is the same kind of book, but on rhythm.


BD: Our body's natural rhythm is around 120 beats per minute. What do you think about techno/rave music which has pushed the bpm to 135?
We're moving to faster rhythms. The young folks are speeding up. They have to be. You can entrain with any rhythm. It's just that 120 is closer to most people's body functions. Any rhythm is entrainable. Some are too fast or too slow for you to perceive. Like the sun or the moon, you can see those cycles, but it's long. There are cycles of nature, cycles of the body, and cycles of culture. You can lock up with these rhythms. Rave music is played for sped-up people. They're taking psychoactive drugs, and experiencing auditory driving, loud music, and they're dancing, using motion and having a trance inducing experience.

BD: A lot of what you just described could apply to a Grateful Dead concert, but with the pace a bit slower.
That's right. It's the same thing, but we're not 18- or 19-years-old. What we've learned is the infrastructure. It's in the details with the Grateful Dead. It's the stuff that's inside the bigger groove. There's a lot going on in there. It's a finite tapestry. Something that has taken years to develop. This mosaic is all detail.

BD: What are you working on now? I mean new music from Mickey Hart.
Well, me and Billy are doing a record with Bob Ravelove. He's our MIDI expert and tech wiz. We're in the middle of a project.

BD: Will this be pure rhythm, or rhythm and synthesizer?
It's going to be rhythm, a lot of rhythm. Let's put it this way, I doubt if there'll be any guitars or keyboards or bass (laughs).

BD: Your Planet Drum album is pure rhythm but very musical with the Beam...
That's all sophisticated stereo digital processing. That's taking all the archaic instruments and just bumping them up into a digital space. We've got a foot in the archaic and a foot in the future. This one is a continuation of that. We don't know how it's going to turn out, but we know it will have a lot of drums. It will be full of rhythm, there will be melody, and there probably won't be any voices.

BD: I think that covers everything I was going to ask.
I'm going to the studio to make that record we just were talking about.
[After talking more about the drum circle and about his book, the cycle of our conversation returned to drumming...]
MH: [Drumming] relieves stress. I try to play the drum every day at least for 15 or 20 minutes .

BD: Well, that's your job.
No, not really. (laughs). It is a job - bit I do it for my own personal focusing. It's like I go to the gym, then I drum. It's like eating breakfast. It's important for my balance.

BD: It's more than a job then.
(Laughing) It's way more than a job! Man, it's what I'm supposed to be doing here.

Bob Doran's interview with Mickey Hart appeared in a slightly different form in the Oct. 1992 issue of Edge City magazine.





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